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National | The government develops a new chemical weapons detector, and new ways to spy on bad guys

Issue: "Homeland insecurity," Nov. 10, 2001

Detector of the deadly
Researchers at the Energy Department's Oak Ridge National Laboratory say they've found a new sensor that detects chemical and biological agents. It can spot substances in a fraction of the time taken by conventional detectors. The device, the Block II Chemical and Biological Mass Spectrometer, uses a computer the size of a shoebox to identify dozens of potential hazards. It can find chemical agents within 30 seconds and biological agents in less than four minutes. The device, however, won't be available for deployment for up to two years, and it weighs about 170 pounds and costs about $200,000. Recent anthrax attacks have increased the importance of such equipment. Manufacturers of existing scanners say they are receiving hundreds of orders from both the private and public sector. Yet the technological challenge remains great. According to a recent government study, no single machine can detect all known biological weapons, especially when they are hidden inside sealed packages. One expert said that the civilian population is more protected by spending money on public health than expensive detection machines. "It makes sense to protect the troops," said Eric Croddy, a weapons proliferation researcher at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. "There's a reasonable chance they face a threat. For civilians like you and me, I don't think anybody could justify it." New Snoop tools
The federal government plans a new wave of high-tech snooping in the wake of the war on terrorism. New anti-terrorism legislation signed by President Bush has law-enforcement and intelligence agencies scrambling to deploy new technologies. Meanwhile, critics worry that this could lead to less privacy for innocent people. Within hours of the law's taking effect, Justice Department lawyers e-mailed federal prosecutors around the country with lengthy guidelines on how to use their new power. Agents may now use existing tools in new ways and with less supervision. This includes the controversial Carnivore system, which captures suspects' e-mails, and "sneak and peek" searches in which agents collect the keystrokes made on suspects' computers. Critics complained that such power is open to abuse. In response, House Majority Leader Dick Armey added a clause to the anti-terror bill that requires investigators to tell a judge every detail about a Carnivore installation. Some of the wiretapping and electronic surveillance portions of the new legislation sunset at the end of 2005. That opens the door to new debate and revision of these policies in the future. Meanwhile, the CIA is rushing to deploy a new generation of gadgetry. The "Fluent" system searches through foreign-language websites and sends back reports in English to analysts. Another technology called "Oasis" monitors radio and TV broadcasts; the agency is currently training it to be fluent in colloquial forms of Arabic. A chat system for spies called "CIA Live!" allows operatives to collaborate on reports and maps. Video wars
The battle of the video game consoles is coming to stores this Christmas. Microsoft is diving into the market with the Xbox while Nintendo is rolling out its new GameCube. Even though the price tags are hefty ($299 and $199, respectively), backers hope the gizmos will prompt parents to spend money, even in an economic slump. The releases are scheduled within three days of one another in mid-November. Microsoft Chief Financial Officer John Connors has admitted that the Xbox won't be profitable right away, but the new product is important to the company's future. A game console gives the software giant a new platform in the consumer's home that coexists with the popular Windows operating systems. To succeed, Microsoft must compete in a market where two established players already dominate. The Xbox's components are much like that of a PC: It packs a 733MHz Intel chip, a hard drive, DVD-ROM, and Ethernet port for online gaming. Nintendo's GameCube, on the other hand, uses a new type of disc and can use the popular Game Boy Advance handheld console as a remote. Video games are still in a long-term up trend, according to Cahners In-Stat Group, which predicts that unit sales will increase by an average of 13 percent per year through 2005. Yet fierce competition has already driven away a major manufacturer, Sega, which discontinued its Dreamcast console and announced it would begin supporting its former competitors' products.

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