The haunting images from the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings still remain with Northeastern University professor Jose Martinez. Four years later, it’s one of the reasons he’s motivated to stop the next one.
“How can I as a scientist, help us avoid situations like that,” asked Martinez.
His team at the university are developing a new scanning technology to detect guns, bombs, or other threats under clothing and inside backpacks.
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Unlike the machines at airport security check points, this would all happen in real time.
“If a potential security threat is found, that person would be flagged,” explained Martinez.
The device functions like one of the electronic toll gantries on the Massachusetts Turnpike. Instead of cars passing through, it would be a lot of people at once. Martinez says it would be mobile and could be moved around to sports stadiums, colleges, or public spaces.
This cutting edge technology is also getting the attention of the Department of Homeland Security. The research is now being partially funded by the federal agency.
“The bad guys are really evolving with their tactics and explosive threats, and we really need to be able to stay ahead of that,” said Laura Parker with Homeland Security.
But privacy advocates say this is essentially surveillance technology. And if it showed up in a public space like Copley Square, it would cause concern.
“It would be conducting a 4th amendment search on people walking down the street and that can’t happen without a warrant in the United States,” said Kade Crockford with ACLU Massachusetts.
Crockford says if the technology actually works, it needs to be properly vetted and could only be used in specific circumstances.
“If you’re setting up a limited security cordon and you are only allowing people into that cordon, that’s a separate issue than just putting them out on the street,” said Crockford.
Martinez says a working prototype is only a couple years away and Boston would be one of the first places it would be tested.
“If we can save lives it seems like we are doing our job,” said Martinez.