The future of crowd control
Dec 2nd 2004
>From The Economist print edition
Security technology: Should a more high-tech approach to keeping the peace, using sounds, shocks and stinks, replace existing methods?
There's one—set for stun
WHEN faced with rowdy protesters, police forces have a number of tools at their disposal with which to disperse crowds and quell violence, including batons, shields, rubber bullets and water cannons. But these antiquated devices are crude and rely on brute force, which can lead to further violence and can, in some situations, prove lethal. A number of new crowd-control technologies take a different approach, employing sounds, shocks and stinks to disperse or incapacitate protesters. Such “non-lethal weapons” (NLWs) have been talked about for years, but they are now attracting much more interest, for a simple reason: Iraq.
Between 1997 and 2003, America's Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Programme, which co-ordinates the development of NLWs for the American military, had an annual budget of around $22m. In 2004, it was increased to $43.3m. The extra funding reflects the growing need, in Iraq in particular, for ways to control crowds while causing as little harm as possible.
There are several ways to do this. Earlier this year, American soldiers in Iraq were equipped with a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) to use in western Iraq. It is a sort of mega-megaphone, able to blast sounds (such as crowd-dispersal instructions in Arabic) in a narrow beam and with great clarity at a deafening 150 decibels. The LRAD can also make a deafening screeching noise, like a fire alarm. This sound can incapacitate anyone within 300 metres by giving them an instant headache. According to Carl Gruenler of American Technology Corporation, the San Diego firm that makes the LRAD, “you definitely don't want to be there” within 100 metres of the noise. The device is intended to be used in short bursts at a distance of 300 metres, since longer exposures could lead to permanent hearing loss. It can also be used to flush people out of buildings, and has been deployed on American warships, to warn off small craft that come too close.
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The evolution of the photofit
The future of crowd control
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Your cheating phone
Battle of the blue lasers
The rise of the green building
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Why the future is hybrid
Move over, Big Brother
In praise of P2P
The journey of the sorcerer
The contest to succeed DVDs
Offer to readers
The United States Air Force describes its weapon based on "active denial technology". Companies producing non-lethal weapons include American Technology Corporation and Paraklese Technologies. See also the Institute for Non-Lethal Defence Technologies.
Where the LRADtargets hearing, a weapon that zaps the skin debilitates via the sense of touch. The United States Air Force has developed a microwave weapon, called “active denial technology”, that would incapacitate crowds in this way. Microwaves are a form of electromagnetic radiation, like visible light or radio waves. If strong enough, the radiation can penetrate clothing and cause water molecules just below the surface of the skin to vibrate. These vibrating molecules heat up and create a burning sensation, akin to touching a hot light bulb.
The microwaves are emitted in a tight beam that can be swept across a crowd or directed at specific individuals. Tests on volunteers, the air force claims, have shown no long-term effects other than tenderness caused by repeated exposure; of the $51m spent on developing the system so far, $9m has been devoted to evaluating its effect on victims. The system will be tested on the ground, mounted on Humvee armoured vehicles, during 2005, and the air force plans to award a $22m contract to develop technology to enable it to be used from the air.
Not all NLWs, however, depend on high technology. Taking a rather more old-fashioned approach is the “tactical maloderant ball”—a fancy name for what is really just a small, spherical stink bomb made by Paraklese Technologies, a firm based in Indiana that supplies law-enforcement agencies. Made of sterilised (but unspecified) animal faeces encased in a thin, gelatinous shell, it is fired from a rifle similar to a paintball gun. On impact, it leaves a powerful stench on an individual that strongly offends anyone standing nearby. The idea, says Dan Fosnight of Paraklese, is to isolate individuals who are instigating violence in crowds, in order to keep those around them safe.
It is not only human-rights activists and conspiracy theorists who regard NLWs with suspicion. Without rigorous, peer-reviewed research into the effects of all of these devices on people, it is impossible to be sure that they are any safer than batons and rubber bullets. The term “non-lethal” is something of a misnomer, since weapons described as such do not have to pass any specific test to demonstrate their non-lethal nature, and nearly all NLWs can kill if used in a certain manner. Even America's Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Programmedefines NLWs as “weapons that are explicitly designed and primarily employed so as to incapacitate personnel...while minimising fatalities, permanent injury to personnel, and undesired damage to property.” Minimising fatalities is not the same as preventing them altogether.
Andrew Mazzara of the Institute for Non-Lethal Defence Technologies, a research centre at the University of Pennsylvania, is conducting a rigorous evaluation of NLWs. As well as evaluating the physical effects of NLWs and determining what training is needed by their users, his institute is examining what tactics work best in particular crowd-control situations. The researchers are already assessing several NLWs, including the LRAD. Indeed, it is only now, months after it was deployed in Iraq, that the LRAD is being scientifically scrutinised by a body other than the company that sells it. But at least the claims that have long been made about NLWs are at last being put to the test.