News of the Strange: Police stop a Connecticut woman for being too radioactive

Today’s Hartford Courant reports that DMV inspectors “with full police powers” detected potentially dangerous radiation as their SUV passed a car on I-91. When the inspectors pulled over the suspicious car, they found a woman driving home after having a routine medical test.

The woman, whose privacy had already been compromised, and who asked not to be identified, had just come from a cardiovascular stress test, in which a small amount of radioactive technetium had been injected into her blood to aid in X-raying her heart in greater detail. It’s a common procedure. The isotope has a half-life of about 6 hours, and is considered medically safe when used in this way.

On the superficial level, this is an almost-comic example of good intentions gone strangely wrong. But the deeper levels are representative of the more knotty questions facing our country today. That law enforcement officers are deploying radiation detectors, especially of this sensitivity, and testing highway traffic for radioactivity is a surprise to many. For me, this raises questions about how effective any kind of broad-based surveillance can be, and it raises deep concerns about how our representatives in Washington DC are trading freedoms for the illusion of safety.

I’m reminded of a recent article by mathematician John Allen Paulos, which appeared on abcnews.com. I should point out that Mr. Paulos and I disagree on some of our political views, and I find he isn’t always immune from the same kind of invisible bias and unconscious assumptions about which he is so gifted at raising our awareness. Still, I’ve enjoyed his books and articles, and their usually-impartial insights, and learned to be a more careful consumer of news and information. Anyway, in this article, Mr. Paulos discusses the numbers behind the futility of monitoring international calls for possible terrorist activity:

For illustration, let’s further assume that one out of a million American residents has terrorist ties — that’s approximately 300 people — and the profile will pick out 99 percent, or 297 of them. Great. But what of the approximately 300 million innocent Americans? The profile will also pick out 1 percent of them, “only” 3 million false positives, innocent people who will be caught up in a Kafkaesque dragnet. Mr. Paulos is talking of a hypothetical, nearly-perfect, and unachievable “profile” or test used to distinguish a positive or negative match. The next logical step in this thought experiment is, given 3,000,297 positive matches from an impossibly accurate test, how does Homeland Security tease out the correct 297 true positive results from the three million false positives? Put another way, even if civil rights were not an issue at all, and blanket surveillance were an accepted fact of life, and given that these are the most optimistic numbers imaginable, would this technique actually detect a single terrorism-related phone call, much less a call involving a significant threat? The odds are, roundly, 1 in 10,000 for the former case, and less than that for the latter.

In related news, The Boston Globe reports today that 14 of the 16 provisions of the ingenously-named Patriot Act are due to become permanent, pending President Bush’s signature.

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