But Richard Falkenrath, the NYPD's deputy commissioner for counterterrorism, knows that it's just a matter of time. That's why he and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have asked the City Council to pass a law requiring anyone who wants to own such detectors to get a permit from the police first. And it's not just devices to detect weaponized anthrax that they want the power to control, but those that detect everything from industrial pollutants to asbestos in shoddy apartments. Want to test for pollution in low-income neighborhoods with high rates of childhood asthma? Gotta ask the cops for permission. Why? So you "will not lead to excessive false alarms and unwarranted anxiety," the first draft of the law states.
Last week, Falkenrath made his case for the new law before the City Council's Public Safety Committee, where Councilman Peter Vallone introduced the bill and chaired the hearing. Dozens of university researchers, public-health professionals, and environmental lawyers sat in the crowd, horrified by the prospect that if this law passes, their work detecting and warning the public about airborne pollutants will become next to impossible. But Falkenrath pressed on, saying that unless the police can determine who gets to look for nasty stuff floating in the air, the city would be paralyzed by fear.
"There are currently no guidelines regulating the private acquisition of biological, chemical, and radiological detectors," warned Falkenrath, adding that this law was suggested by officials within the Department of Homeland Security. "There are no consistent standards for the type of detectors used, no requirement that they be reported to the police department—or anyone else, for that matter—and no mechanism for coordinating these devices. . . . Our mutual goal is to prevent false alarms . . . by making sure we know where these detectors are located, and that they conform to standards of quality and reliability."
After an hour of this, poor Peter Vallone looked shell-shocked. He had planned to fast-track this legislation—in fact, the law was supposed to have been voted on last week—but that was before the critics had heard about it. As the opposition mounted, Vallone pulled the proposed legislation just before the meeting's end and agreed to give it a second look. "When I was first given a briefing only weeks ago, the potential problems did occur to me," he said in a later interview. "But the extent of the opposition, on such short notice, was a bit surprising."Nope can't inconvenience the police. Wonder what other inconvenient situations they want to avoid, crime scenes? This is pathetic. It also comes to the conclusion that is heard too often from the security crowd on leaving security to the professionals. The problem with that is how many people are going to be dead before a professional figures out there is a problem? Of course the Nanny state is better equipped to make you safe than you could possibly be. Proven no doubt by all the murders that are prevented each year.
But don't think Vallone has given up or anything. He and his colleagues will try to accommodate all the concerns when they redraft the bill, he said, but one way or another, the cops are going to have this new power. "No one's going to be completely happy in the end," Vallone said, "but I think the police department gave some very impressive testimony on the stand, and also expressed a willingness to listen to concerns." After all, if you let research scientists and community groups do their jobs, the terrorists will have already won.
Schneier at least has a realistic view on the whole thing:
False positives are a problem with any detection system, and certainly putting Geiger counters in the hands of everyone will mean a lot of amateurs calling false alarms into the police. But the way to handle that isn't to ban Geiger counters. (Just as the way to deal with false fire alarms 100 years ago wasn't to lock the alarm boxes.) The way to deal with it is by 1) putting a system in place to quickly separate the real alarms from the false alarms, and 2) prosecuting those who maliciously sound false alarms.The problem comes into who are you defining as the professional? If I detect something with a geiger counter, are you going to tell me that the police will be knowledgeable enough to decide whether its a false positive or not? Especially considering that many of us "non-professionals" in this context are in reality professionals above the grade of those who would be judging our results? (Yeah, 13 years in the nuclear industry gives me a lot of practical knowledge of radiological detection devices. Far more than any police or fireman.)
We don't want to encourage people to report everything; that's too many false alarms. Nor do we want to discourage them from reporting things they feel are serious. In the end, it's the job of the police to figure out what's what. I said this in an essay last year:...these incidents only reinforce the need to realistically assess, not automatically escalate, citizen tips. In criminal matters, law enforcement is experienced in separating legitimate tips from unsubstantiated fears, and allocating resources accordingly; we should expect no less from them when it comes to terrorism.
Good luck to NYer's. Another reason to avoid that mess you call home.