Arthur C Clarke once famously noted that ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’. Were he still alive today he might also have observed that magic, when dressed up in sufficiently advanced technobabble, can be readily mistaken for science.
Tuesday’s New York Times carried this quite staggering report on the involvement of a number British and European companies in the sale of so-called ‘portable explosives detectors’ to police and security forces in Iraq, Thailand and other countries in the developing world:
BAGHDAD — Despite major bombings that have rattled the nation, and fears of rising violence as American troops withdraw, Iraq’s security forces have been relying on a device to detect bombs and weapons that the United States military and technical experts say is useless.
The small hand-held wand, with a telescopic antenna on a swivel, is being used at hundreds of checkpoints in Iraq. But the device works “on the same principle as a Ouija board” — the power of suggestion — said a retired United States Air Force officer, Lt. Col. Hal Bidlack, who described the wand as nothing more than an explosives divining rod.
These devices first emerged under the brand name ‘Sniffex’ and were marketed by a Nevada registered corporation operating out of Texas called ‘Homeland Safety International’. In July 2008, the people behind this company were charged by the US Securities and Exchange Commission with carrying out a $32 million pump-and-dump fraud on investors the mechanics of which were described in the following terms:
The complaint further alleges that Mihaylov, Markov, and Johnson then engaged in a fraudulent promotional campaign intended to inflate the share price and trading volume in the public market for Sniffex stock. The campaign characterized Sniffex’s primary product, a purported hand-held bomb detector invented by Markov, which was also called Sniffex, as a critical breakthrough in the global war against terrorism. At the behest of Mihaylov and Markov, Johnson drafted and issued 33 press releases on Sniffex’s behalf. The press releases contained materially false information about tests regarding the product’s ability to detect explosives and the company’s financial situation. These fraudulent claims were parroted by Mihaylov in a spam-email campaign and in a glossy direct-mail piece.
The company is alleged to have lied about the capabilities and performance of its supposed explosives detector in order to inflate its share price, a classic scam which collapsed in on itself after James Randi obtained, and published extracts from a report into the devices capabilities produced by the US Naval EOD Technology Division which found that:
The test objectives were to evaluate the vendor’s claims concerning the device’s ability to detect explosives. Testing was performed in a manner consistent with the specifications of the SNIFFEX, and was designed only to evaluate the device’s principles of operation, not to test its limits. Thus, explosive weights were considerably more than the minimum detectable amounts (20 or more pounds vs. 0.1 pounds), while distances were kept well within the maximum delectable ranges (10-25 feet vs. 300 feet) and the vendor was given the opportunity to take multiple passes prior to making a determination vs. 2-3 as stated in their literature. As shown in Table 1, the SNIFFEX handheld explosives detector performed no better than random chance over the course of testing…
The SNIFFEX did not detect explosives. A summary of the results is shown in Table 2. Every effort was made to meet the vendor’s needs to allow the device to operate under ideal conditions…
The vendor never suggested that the SNIFFEXs were malfunctioning during any test despite the fact that the devices were not correctly identifying the location of explosives…
On one occasion, the vendor wondered if the building was influencing the accuracy of the device, even though their device is purported to be able to detect explosives through most any barrier. In response to this, the operator proceeded to walk around the outside perimeter of the building while twenty pounds of TNT were inside. As he walked, the SNIFFEX indicated that explosives were present within the building as evidenced by a clear antenna deflection. [Randi comments: The vendor/operator had already been informed that there was an explosive target stored somewhere within that building.] However, as he was noting the positive indication of explosives in the structure, two explosives trucks containing a total of 1,000 pounds of explosives drove up behind him to a distance of approximately twenty feet away. The SNIFFEX failed to show any indication of this much larger quantity of explosives…
Based upon the observed test results, the SNIFFEX handheld explosives detector is not capable of detecting explosives regardless of the distance between the device and any explosives…
The antenna [on the SNIFFEX] is prone to deflection from slight breezes, magnetic influences, and improper handling. Furthermore the device is extremely susceptible to a well-documented phenomenon known as the ideomotor effect…
That last statement gives the game away because the ideomotor effect, a psychological phenomenon in which individuals make unconscious movements in line with conscious expectations without any awareness that the two are connected, is the principle behind several so-called paranormal phenomena including automatic writing, the ouija board and, of most relevance here, dowsing.
The Sniffex is a dowsing rod.
Actually, its a very expensive dowsing rod, as the NY Times reports that these device retail at anything from $16,000-$60,000 for each unit but nevertheless its still the same device that you can quickly knock up in your own home with the length of wire and an empty biro tube, as this image of a near identical device, marketed by a British company as the ‘ADE 651’ neatly illustrates.
If all there was to this story was a tale of a very American stock market fraud then that would be that, but despite this device having been exposed as being utterly useless, companies in the UK and Germany continue to market it to various police forces and other security services across the developing world.
The Sniffex device, itself, is still available (as the Sniffex Plus) from a company registered in Germany, unival® security which has a functional website at www.sniffex-eu.com that continues to claim that:
SNIFFEX®PLUS works for the detection of most conventional explosives (including, but not limited to) TNT, Dynamite, Ammonite (+Diesel), PETN, RDX, gun-powder, Semtex, C4 based on its ability to detect the presence of Nitro compounds (-NO2 or -NO3) within its effective range but also liquid explosives such as TAP, TATP and other chemical compounds, based on hydrogen peroxide.
With SNIFFEX®PLUS the detection of explosives is applicable from average distances between 2-100 meters (depending on type and quantity of the explosive) even when the explosives are hidden in buildings or in vehicles, behind barriers like concrete walls and metal barriers. Unlike other devices that work with reference cards, SNIFFEX®PLUS can detect explosives in one search round only, saving time and resources. SNIFFEX®PLUS is immediately ready for use and does not require extensive set-up.
In the UK, near identical devices have been sold, in sizeable quantities, to Iraqi security forces by ATSC (UK) Ltd, as the ADE 651 and to police in Thailand by Global Technical Ltd, as the GT-200. The NY Times reports that the Iraqi government have purchased more than 1500 ADE 651 devices before adding that:
Aqeel al-Turaihi, the inspector general for the Ministry of the Interior, reported that the ministry bought 800 of the devices from a company called ATSC (UK) Ltd. for $32 million in 2008, and an unspecified larger quantity for $53 million. Mr. Turaihi said Iraqi officials paid up to $60,000 apiece, when the wands could be purchased for as little as $18,500. He said he had begun an investigation into the no-bid contracts with ATSC.
ATSC (UK) LTD, or rather ATSC Exports Ltd, the name under which the company is registered at Companies House, has its registered office at Dairy House Yard, Sparkford, Yeovil and used to have a website at www.atscltd.com, but this has no completely disappeared down the memory hole to the extent that pages cached by the Wayback Machine internet archive appear to have removed. The site now states, simply, ‘website under repair’.
Global Technical Ltd’s website still works, but its products section is currently unavailable. However, after a bit of digging in Google’s cache, I did locate a copy of the company’s product page for the GT-200 system which made the following claims:
GLOBAL TECHNICAL LTD is at the forefront for the development of stand off technology for the detection of Narcotics, Explosives, Weapons and many other substances.
The GT200 has been developed to allow the search of large areas and reduce them to small locations that can then be searched with existing technologies such as the canine. The system allows for all types of drugs or explosives to be searched for in one operation, unlike our competitors who have to make the search a number of times to determine the substance.
The GT200 can be used for Vehicle Check Point searches, Port Control searches, Open Area searches, Air Operation searches, Naval Operation searches, and Building searches.
Currently, the site sports a couple of rather cryptic messages as ‘latest news’ include one that states only that:
Contrary to recent misinformation, our equipment trial reports and references provided by the Government are all original documents.
This relates to the following claim, made in the company’s marketing literature and sourced here from a reseller:
Two test reports are available that confirm the effectiveness of our technology. One is from the British Army and relates to the search of explosives. The report confirms the technology is ideally suited to stand off detection of explosives. This is an important reference from the Royal Engineers who are the foremost authority in the UK for explosives search and disposal, having gained experience from the troubles in Northern Ireland and operations around the world.
Technowiz, who contacted the MoD about these claims, has a letter from Quentin Davies MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Defence responsible for Defence Equipment and Support, which tells a very different story…
I have established that previously there was a DESO EST based at RSME Chatham. In 1999 that EST undertook an assessment of GT200 on behalf of Global Technical Ltd and produced a report that was described as a ‘trial’. It should not have been described in that way as it did not meet the MOD criteria for a formal trial…
Evaluations of equipment are carried out by EST personnel for internal company use only and current instruction to the EST emphasises that they are not to be used by companies in any form of marketing. UKTI DSO is taking legal advice to be able to include a form of wording on all reports produced to retain ownership of their contents and to ensure a company cannot use an EST evaluation to promote their product. In this particular case, UKTI DSO will be asking the company not to use the 1999 report to promote their product. They will also request that any reference to MOD or UKTI endorsement in their literature and on their website be removed.
The site also provides this description of how the GT-200 allegedly ‘works’:
The GT200 works on the principal of dia/para magnetism. All substances carry a magnetic charge that, when stimulated by an impulse of electricity, (static) creates an attraction between the substance being detected and the GT200 unit itself. This is called EMA or Electro Magnetic Attraction.
The simple way to explain this technology is to take an inflated balloon and rub it on your hair. A static charge is being created making that balloon “attract” it to say, a wall. Provided that there is enough charge on that balloon, it will remain “attracted” to the wall for an indefinite amount of time. However, once the “charge” has dissipated, the balloon will then “unattached” between itself and fall to the ground.
What the GT200 is doing is creating an “attraction” between itself and the substance it wants to detect. Through the Substance Sensor Card and the movement of an operator, an attracting field is created in the card reader that, in turn causes the Receiver”s antenna of the GT200 to “lock onto” a signal, indicating the direction in which the substance can be located. When the magnetic signal of the substance that the GT200 is searching for, is located within its detection range, the GT200 receiving antenna will move toward the direction that the substance exist. In essence the GT200 functions like a hyper sensitive receiver.
So what we have is complete unpowered device which purports to use paramagnetism to detect drug, explosives and other substances at ranges from 800 metres in water, 700 metres in general use, 60 metre below ground and, best of all, up to 4km when scanning for an aerial.
That is bullshit of the highest possible order, a handheld device that purports to detect forces that are otherwise only detectable in a lab using a SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device) Magnetometer…
…the device is a fraud – simple as that.
But unlike other junk science frauds, such a vocal lie detectors and perpetual motion machines, this is a fraud that has serious consequences:
The suicide bombers who managed to get two tons of explosives into downtown Baghdad on Oct. 25, killing 155 people and destroying three ministries, had to pass at least one checkpoint where the ADE 651 is typically deployed, judging from surveillance videos released by Baghdad’s provincial governor. The American military does not use the devices. “I don’t believe there’s a magic wand that can detect explosives,” said Maj. Gen. Richard J. Rowe Jr., who oversees Iraqi police training for the American military. “If there was, we would all be using it. I have no confidence that these work.”
The Iraqis, however, believe passionately in them. “Whether it’s magic or scientific, what I care about is it detects bombs,” said Maj. Gen. Jehad al-Jabiri, head of the Ministry of the Interior’s General Directorate for Combating Explosives.
But it doesn’t detect bombs and Iraqis are going to continue to die in attacks that might well have been prevented has their security forces invested in trained explosives sniffer dogs, which do work very well, while companies in the UK and Germany continue to rack up the profits from selling fancy-looking but utterly useless dowsing rods.
This is not just fraud, its culpable involvement in negligent homicide – and if you want to know what that looks like then take a look at this…
That is, apparently, a picture of part of the aftermath of a bomb attack in Thailand in which the GT-200 device used by the Thai police failed to detect any explosives.
That’s what junk science does. Its not simply a bit of harmless new age hippy nonsense, as some suppose, it kills people and it does so unnecessarily and without any thought for the consequences.
This is one junk science fraud where action needs to be taken, and taken now before any more people die as a result of British companies selling dowsing rods as so-called explosives detectors.
It’s worth flagging up this comment at Bad Astronomy, from the great James Randi no less, which explains one element of the scam:
It should be mentioned that the fake circuitry in this device consists of old remote-control circuit boards – bought for about $1.50 from surplus stores who sell them to hobbyists who salvage the resistors and capacitors. Only a wire or two is connected, and then only to the battery and the “indicator light” on the instrument, and a simple meter that wags to and fro.
There is a rather large community of people around the world that believes in dowsing: the ancient practice of using forked sticks, swinging rods, and pendulums to look for underground water and other materials. These people believe that many types of materials can be located using a variety of dowsing methods. Dowsers claim that the dowsing device will respond to any buried anomalies, and years of practice are needed to use the device with discrimination (the ability to cause the device to respond to only those materials being sought). Modern dowsers have been developing various new methods to add discrimination to their devices. These new methods include molecular frequency discrimination (MFD) and harmonic induction discrimination (HID). MFD has taken the form of everything from placing a xerox copy of a Poloroid photograph of the desired material into the handle of the device, to using dowsing rods in conjunction with frequency generation electronics (function generators). None of these attempts to create devices that can detect specific materials such as explosives (or any materials for that matter) have been proven successful in controlled double-blind scientific tests. In fact, all testing of these inventions has shown these devices to perform no better than random chance…
…In recent years some makers of these dowsing devices have attempted to cross over from treasure hunting to the areas of contraband detection, search and rescue, and law enforcement…
…Things to look for when dealing with “new technologies” that may well be a dowsing device are words like molecular frequency discrimination, harmonic induction discrimination, and claims of detecting small objects at large distances. Many of these devices require no power to operate (most real technology requires power). Suspect any device that uses a swinging rod that is held nearly level, pivots freely and “indicates” the material being sought by pointing at it. Any device that uses a pendulum that swings in different shaped paths to indicate its response should also arouse suspicion. Advertisements that feature several testimonials by “satisfied users,” and statements about pending tests by scientific and regulatory agencies (but have just not happened yet) may be indications that the device has not been proven to work. Statements that the device must be held by a human to operate usually indicate dowsing devices. Statements that the device requires extensive training by the factory, the device is difficult to use, and not everyone can use the device, are often made to allow the manufacturer a way of blaming the operator for the device’s failure to work. Another often used diversion is that scientists and engineers cannot understand the operation of the device or the device operates on principles that have been lost or forgotten by the scientific community.
Blaming the operator for a device’s failure to work and claims that scientists/engineers cannot understand how the device works are common features of almost all junk science-based ‘technologies’.