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Headspace: Olfactional infighting

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Book extract Headspace is Reg contributor Amber Marks's exploration of how the state and private sectors are trying to exploit the science of smell to watch and control citizens.

Over the coming weeks, we will be publishing exclusive extracts from the book, which is published by Virgin Books and available here.

Today we present Chapter 5, "Hijacking The Yeast". Marks is attending a Ministry of Defence conference covering the security applications of olfaction.

The morning of the conference arrived, and I was surprised to sleep through my alarm. I woke up with a jolt in bright sunlight. I hurriedly showered and pulled on black stockings, designer long skirt, black top, black Gucci suit jacket, black leather stilettos and scrambled around for a black handbag. Instead I found a fluffy orange and green bag and a variety of 1970s brown leather bags. I grabbed one, reassuring myself that 1970s items no longer represented Peace or Love but simply Fashion. I glanced in the mirror and pulled my hair back extra tightly, pleased with how stern I looked. I sprayed on some Dolce & Gabbana to complete the effect.

Steve Tapper, a young stocky man with a crew-cut, was next to take the stage. He was studying canine detection in the United States. He opened with a reference to Aristotle, who had apparently said that smell was at the heart of perception. Tapper was concerned by the lack of peer-reviewed publications on the scientific validity of canine detection. Legal challenges to the use of dogs in the US suggested that the police might not be able to rely solely on the reputation of the dog's nose in the future. Judges and juries were starting to ask for scientific proof of a dog's ability to detect and identify specific scents. A lot of work needed to be done; the studies he had carried out had revealed a number of flaws in canine detection.

The United States was attempting to build up a database of human scents. I wondered if perhaps the Americans had the Stasi samples that went missing at the end of their regime. Scientists involved in Tapper's research felt confident that each individual had a particular scent that remained constant over time, regardless of diet or environmental factors. Scents had been collected from the armpits of volunteers. It sounded similar to the means employed to get the DNA database off the ground in the UK: armies of ill-informed volunteers.

The first impediment to the accuracy of scent as a form of identification was that the gauzes used to sample the scent were already impregnated with their own scents, ones shared by some humans. It had not yet been possible to produce an analytically clean medium to impregnate with a scent.

I could see why this might be an impediment.

"Ironically," he concluded, the gauzes used by the FBI, manufactured by the family friendly Johnson & Johnson company, were the most heavily contaminated gauzes. The second impediment was the absence of an agreed unit of measurement. Olfaction lacked a scientific language. He referred us to the website of the Scientific Working Group on Dog and Orthogonal Detection Guidelines. They were working on this problem.

Someone on the front row sneezed. "Bless you," a red-haired and voluptuous American woman called out across the room.

It was my turn to speak.

"The most important concept we need to understand in order to grasp the potential human rights implications of an expansion in olfactory surveillance is the right to privacy."

"The right to privacy has been said to be at the heart of liberty in the modern state. The right to privacy implies that in the absence of compelling justification, we should all be free to move about without fear of being systematically observed by agents of the state. In accordance with the right to privacy, the law requires the police to have reasonable grounds to believe that a crime has been committed by a person before searching them. Until relatively recently, the police had to physically search a person's pockets or houses to find out what was inside of them. This is no longer the case.

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