GE Puffer Stinks of Dr. Strangelove

I've been traveling way too much recently. And when you do too much of something, you can get too nonchalant about it.

For example, this week, not only did I take a “multi-destination” flight, but I rebooked part of it at the last minute so I could adjust my schedule when a meeting was cancelled. Abnormal behavior, right? Apparently.

I guess everyone will feel safer knowing that my deviation from a conventional “pre-booked return” travel profile alerted American West to put me through special screening – both on my way from San Francisco to Vegas, and on my way from Vegas back to Seattle. One marvels at the integration of artificial intelligence (in the true sense of the first word) into the ticketing system.

Giant imprints reading ‘SSSS‘ appeared in enormous boldface type both on my eTicket and the attached stub – a novel mechanism that unambiguously identifies a suspect to security line attendants in both cities.

All of this was fascinating, but nothing compared to what I went through once I was identified as what the transport security industry calls a “selectee”.

Instead of the conventional “pat down”, I was forced to experience first-hand two implementations of a new explosive-sniffing device called a “puffer”. Reading the sites of puffer manufacturers, you get the impression that their use with “selectees” is just a prelude to universal screening. According to one travel industry article, the machines are in place as part of a test by Safe Skies. According to a spokeswoman (whose dress seems to have been permanently puffed by the GE machine, as shown below):

Safe Skies tests equipment with “real people, real lighting conditions, real architecture,” but does not disclose results. The technology receiving the most buzz now in aviation circles is a walk-through portal made by GE Ion Track in Wilmington, Massachusetts. Affectionately called “the puffer,” the portal has a hood that captures the plume of heat that naturally rises off a person's body; it then puffs jets of air which shake loose particles. The machine vaporizes the particles, gives them a charge, and measures how fast the ions are traveling. Using that speed, screeners can identify the presence of banned substances, such as explosives.

According to a blurb at the GE site:

A picture

GE Ion Track's revolutionary walk-through portal quickly screens people for contraband without physical contact. Thanks to our patented Ion Trap Mobility Spectrometer (ITMS®) technology, EntryScan3 detects a wider range of explosives and narcotics with unprecedented sensitivity. It is the ideal complement to X-ray and metal detectors.

For higher throughput, visible and audible commands streamline checkpoints by automatically directing passengers to enter or leave the portal. If traces of explosives or narcotics are detected-or a person leaves before being prompted-EntryScan3 instantly sounds an alarm to facilitate rapid containment.

What's it like?

People, I really hated the GE product. It is tiny, and closes around you. I felt seriously claustrophobic. Then it shot bursts of air at me so hard it actually hurt.

I had been told there would be “puffs of air”, but these were not, by any definition, puffs.

“Puffs” make me think of cigar smoke. Or “Puff the magic dragon”. Puffs of wind. But these were hurricane strength blasts.

Meanwhile the machine barks orders like a concentration camp commandant. Where did they get the voice? It speaks in a chilling metallic imperative borrowed from a really bad science fiction movie. In fact it was barely believable that adults would unleash this contraption on anyone.

On the way back from Vegas, I was put through a different puffer, this time the Sentinel II manufactured by Smiths. In the large sense, it is just as invasive. But the difference between this machine and the GE machine is astounding. The Smiths machine speaks in a voice no more unreasonable than any amusement park ride, and, as the company says, “Gentle puffs of air dislodge any particles trapped on the body, hair, clothing and shoes.” And the puffs are gentle – a completely different experience from the horror devised by the idiots at GE. Further, the machine doesn't produce the sense of being trapped.

Apparently you can select a traditional “pat down” rather than going through these devices, but I was only told about that after expressing my dismay about being subjected to the vile GE contraption. This machine should be destroyed before it is foisted on the traveling public.

If I were GE, I would get my logo off this device as fast as I could. In fact, I would pull the machine back into the lab for a serious rethink, and apologize.

Published by

Kim Cameron

Work on identity.