DHS Wants to Turn Cell Phones Into Chemical Sensors

By Matthew Harwood

The Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) research and development arm wants to turn the smartphone in your pocket into the high-tech equivalent of a canary in a coalmine—all for about a dollar a phone.

On Friday, the Department of Homeland Security's Science & Technology Directorate (S&T) announced it has begun to fund its Cell-All program, which has been in the research phase since 2007, reports Information Week. The program would embed a chemical sensor worth about a dollar into every cell phone, which would detect deadly chemicals without harming the smart phone's battery life.

(Read more about how S&T helps develop sci-fi-like concepts into real-world solutions in "From Research to Reality," by Assistant Editor Joseph Straw from the February 2010 issue of Security Management.)

“Our goal is to create a lightweight, cost-effective, power-efficient solution,” says Stephen Dennis, Cell-All’s program manager. To help make the concept a reality, S&T is pursuing cooperative research agreements with Apple, LG, Qualcomm, and Samsung. If successful, Dennis hopes to have 40 prototypes next year. The first-generation sniffing smartphones would start small by detecting only carbon monoxide and fire.

The DHS Web site explains how "this wizardry" would work.

Just as antivirus software bides its time in the background and springs to life when it spies suspicious activity, so Cell-All regularly sniffs the surrounding air for certain volatile chemical compounds.

When a threat is sensed, a virtual ah-choo! ensues in one of two ways. For personal safety issues such as a chlorine gas leak, a warning is sounded; the user can choose a vibration, noise, text message, or phone call. For catastrophes such as a sarin gas attack, details—including time, location, and the compound—are phoned home to an emergency operations center.

And the technology's effectiveness will only increase as more and more smartphone users acquire it. This will allow the technology to "crowdsource," or use the sensors from multiple smartphones to adequately diagnose and relay a release quickly to first responders. S&T hopes this will reduce, if not eliminate, human error.

Rather than relying on a person to phone in a chemical release or remain calm enough to describe what's occurring, the chemical sensors in the cell phone will automatically contact emergency personnel when it detects a chemical release, identify the source, and provide first responders with the location. This means the sensor will detect and notify authorities of a chemical release even when it's undetectable by humans. And as more and more people utilize the technology, S&T says it will help eliminate false positives as the sensors detect the same release from multiple smartphones at a specific location.

"The end result: emergency responders can get to the scene sooner and cover a larger area—essentially anywhere people are—casting a wider net than stationary sensors can," DHS explains.

S&T also says Cell-All will not jeopardize personal privacy. A smartphone user would have to opt-in to the program and the data transmitted by the phone would remain anonymous. “Privacy is as important as technology,” avers Dennis. “After all, for Cell-All to succeed, people must be comfortable enough to turn it on in the first place.”

While acknowledging the idea is a work in progress, S&T seems upbeat chemical-sniffing cellphones isn't science fiction, but a commercially viable option in the next few years.

"Just as Bill Gates once envisioned a computer on every desk in every home, so Stephen Dennis envisions a chemical sensor in every cell phone in every pocket, purse, or belt holster," the DHS Web site proclaims.

♦ Photo of iPhone by William Hook/Flickr


So if you own a LG, Apple or

So if you own a LG, Apple or Samsung cell phone you could have one of those detectors? Is that how it is? I doubt they'll make it detect drugs since there are many people who take drugs for medical reasons. That would give the PD a bit too much work. This is kind of like the way Batman used all cell phones in the city to create a mega scanner.

DHS Wants to Turn Cell Phones Into Chemical Sensors

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What else can that little sensor do?

If it can detect chemical warfare, heck, couldn't it also be configured to automatically notify the police if it detects drugs or other substances?  A whole possibility of false positives and Police raids could follow.

Fine idea, but I'd like to make sure that it can be disabled by the user.

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