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McCanns: Smells suspicious

Dogs have long been used by police forces to detect drugs and explosives. But now animals and machines are being trained and developed to sniff out a person's potential for aggression, if they are feeling guilty - even their race.

By Amber Marks

I was walking into Fulham Broadway underground station a couple of years ago when I saw police officers holding dogs on leashes, encouraging them to sniff the crotches of passing commuters. What, I asked one of the policemen, was the purpose of this operation?

"I can't say," he replied.

I explained that I was a lawyer with a professional interest in crime. He looked at me with something approaching interest. "Well, you know that most crime is caused by drugs?"

"Yes," I lied.

"These dogs can smell the smallest trace of a drug on a person. Once the dog has picked up a scent of drugs on them, we have the right to search them. If we find drugs on them, we can then search their homes and in their homes we usually find all manner of incriminating articles."

Who needs a warrant when you've got a dog? Olfactory surveillance - the monitoring of personal odour - is on the increase. The number of dogs trained in the detection of criminal suspects and substances is growing. But dogs aren't the only tool envisioned for the future. The Home Office is known to have funded at least one study into the feasibility of releasing swarms of trained bees to search out target odours. The US has similar plans for moths, bees, wasps and cockroaches, and Russia has cross-bred jackals with dogs for an enhanced sense of smell. Even yeast has been genetically manipulated to react to molecules of interest to the security services. Companies across the globe are designing and touting "electronic noses", machines that seek to mimic the mammalian sensory apparatus, in an attempt to satisfy new security demands.

"Headspace" (a term borrowed from the beat generation, where it connoted psychological privacy) is the technical term for the area surrounding an object or person in which their odour can be analysed. But odour detection is not limited to the discovery of drugs and explosives. Scientists and electronic nose entrepreneurs claim headspace analysis can reveal everything from the substances people have been in contact with and their emotional state, to their personal identity and ethnic origin. Although the science behind this field is nascent and the scientific validity of such claims is hotly disputed, they are gaining in stature.

Researchers believe the unique smell that we each emit is tied to the make up of the major histocompatibility complex, a group of genes found on the surface of T-cells that are crucial to the immune system. Several police dog handlers attribute their dogs' knack for identifying criminals to an ability to detect the scent of fear emitted by the guilty, and a synthesised version of this scent is available as a training aid. Scientists are undertaking research into how potential aggressors - or even, for instance, people with schizophrenia - might be identified by the odours they emit. In the 90s an electronic nose company based in the UK was approached by the South African police for the "odour signature" of black people.

A company representative told me they refused to supply it, but could have done. He said that ethnic signatures are quickly obtainable by finding patterns between the molecules present in the headspace of different ethnic groups. He added that his electronic nose had already been trained to detect at what stage a woman was in her menstrual cycle, "just by sniffing her from the other side of the room".

Once referred to as the "neglected sense", the science of olfaction is experiencing a resurgence of interest and researchers predict that, in the near future, our knowledge of it will rival that of the visual sciences. Biologist Lyall Watson outlines the pivotal role played by the olfactory system in his book Jacobson's Organ and the Remarkable Sense of Smell: "There is a general and universal system of chemical communication in which all living things are involved. The result is a coordinated ecological mechanism for the regulation of who goes where, and how many can afford to do so."

The security services want to tap into this primordial information, then exchange and use it in border controls and the wars on crime, terrorism and antisocial behaviour. Watson predicts that a heightened olfactory consciousness will enable us to "get to know who the good guys are". The security services seem to think the science of olfaction is already sufficiently advanced to enable them to do this.

Last summer, Der Spiegel magazine revealed that the German police had been collecting human scents from political activists to enable their dogs to trace persons they believed might try to violently disrupt the G8 summit. China has established a "scent bank" of odours sampled from criminal suspects and crime scenes. According to a document leaked to the Observer, GCHQ, the British intelligence agency, has been evaluating the merits of odour as a means of personal identification.

Common law jurisdictions across the world are struggling to come to terms with this sensory mutation of police searches and interrogations. The case law is strewn with conflicting decisions on the extent to which olfactory surveillance requires regulation. So far, New South Wales in Australia is the only state to have put it on a statutory footing. The Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act 2002 specifies the limited circumstances in which drug detection dogs can be used and requires regular parliamentary review of the exercise of these powers.

The supreme court of South Australia dismissed the argument that a dog "sniff" is an invasion of privacy on the basis that odours emitted from a person are routinely exposed to the perception of the public at large. But this reasoning ignores the fact that odour detection "tools" - such as trained dogs and electronic noses - enable the police to perceive information beyond the range of the human senses, placing them firmly within the category of "new surveillance" techniques first identified as a threat to legal regulators by Gary Marx, professor emeritus of sociology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. According to Marx, in extending the senses, new surveillance "challenges fundamental assumptions about personal and social borders that have been maintained not only by values and norms and social organisation but by the limits of technology to cross them". The threat is obvious: these new methods promise to render traditional investigatory techniques obsolete.

The New South Wales supreme court refused a request in 2001 to regulate olfactory surveillance on the basis that a dog's nose is no more than "an extension of the police officer". But this is a dangerous argument that ignores the privacy issues linked with the expanding range of information sought by olfactory surveillance, as well as the invasive threat of other technologies under development. We are right to fear the new surveillance, even when we have nothing to hide, because it reaches beyond the rule of law, stripping us of our privacy (the right to determine the extent to which we release personal information about ourselves) and leaving us vulnerable to arbitrary state interference.

In 2001, the US supreme court recognised this new threat to privacy. In Kyllo v United States, the police had aimed a thermal-imaging device at Danny Kyllo's residence to detect heat emanations associated with high-powered marijuana grow-lamps. The court held that when the police obtain by sense-enhancing technology any information regarding the interior of a home that could not otherwise have been obtained without physical intrusion, it constitutes a search. The court observed that this would ensure preservation of that degree of privacy and protection from government intrusion that existed when the US constitution was drafted. Justice Souter has since stated that "if constitutional scrutiny is in order for the imager, it is in order for the dog".

In Britain, there has yet to be any challenge to the legality of sniffer dog operations. The Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) is adamant that a sniff does not amount to a search and that an indication from a trained dog amounts to reasonable grounds of suspicion for a stop and search. Acpo reasons that because the dog is deployed to "scent the air surrounding an individual person" and indicate the presence of the smell "in the close vicinity of an individual" no search of the person takes place. In this way, Acpo distances the subject from the source of the scent, to justify its denial that the sniff amounts to a search - and then re-links the subject to the scent to justify a tactile search.

Acpo guidance on the use of sniffer dogs concedes that a police-dog sniff could amount to a search if a person is "funnelled" past the dogs. The guidance clearly states that the police should not funnel people past a sniffer dog because officers have no powers to insist that a member of the public submit to a dog sniff. But commuters, confronted with police dogs at the top of escalators, are faced with little choice on exiting a station. "We don't have any power to tell people to walk past the dog," one senior dog handler conceded. "But we can take advantage of the natural environment." Officers treat attempts to evade a dog as grounds of reasonable suspicion for a stop and search.

Smell has historical associations with sin, which may explain why some people find the experience of being sniffed by a police dog offensive. The devil has often been described as identifiable by his "sulphurous stink". In the late 1500s, odour was used to identify witches in Europe. Odour remains a deeply personal attribute, which most of us seek to disguise. Patrick Süskind sums up the accusatory nature of a nasal interrogation in his novel Perfume: "All at once he felt as if he stank ... The child seemed to be smelling right through his skin, into his innards. His most tender emotions, his filthiest thoughts lay exposed to that greedy little nose ... "

The suspicion generated by an alert from a sniffer dog is difficult to dissipate, as the investigation into the disappearance of Madeleine McCann and the supposed "scent of death" illustrates. Three months after Madeleine's disappearance, dog handler Martin Grime (then working for South Yorkshire police, now for Jersey police on a freelance basis in the search for human remains at Haut de la Garenne) flew out to Portugal to help review case evidence. He was accompanied by his "advanced dog" Eddie. Up until then, corpse-detection dogs had only ever been used in this country to help the police to locate human remains. Eddie the dog reportedly reacted to Mrs McCann's clothing. Almost overnight, the McCanns turned from victims into suspects, and the crowds who had surrounded them in support began to boo and jeer at them in the street. Seemingly as a result of the dog's reactions, the Portuguese police made the McCanns official suspects.


For now, the principal advantage of olfactory surveillance to police forces may reside in the nose's mysterious reputation for infallible detection. The police and security services are constantly on the lookout for technologies that can be used to justify hunches, coerce suspects into confessing and legitimise the use of force with something that can be labelled intelligence. Right now, smell fits the bill.

Amber Marks is a criminal lawyer engaged in doctoral research on surveillance at King's College, London.

Some previous stories of the actions of Eddie and Keela, the Cadaver dogs and Martin Grime, Forensic Dog Trainer:

About Eddie

For nearly six months, investigators have pieced together clues in the disappearance of Walker County 911 operator Theresa Parker.
So far, they've found no trace of Theresa in all their search efforts...so now they plan to use a new tool in the search.
Conventional search methods have yet to produce any sign of the missing 9-1-1 dispatcher.
But Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson says a new partnership with a former British police officer and his dog will hopefully change that.
Even though several months have passed since anyone last saw Theresa Parker, the search is still active.

John Parrish, FBI
"This case is considered a high priority for us in assisting Walker County and the GBI."

So high in fact, the FBI recruited a new tool from overseas -- Eddie, a seven-year-old English Springer Spaniel. Alongside former British police officer Martin Grime, he will serve as a member of the F-B-I forensic canine program.

Parrish, FBI:
"They mainly are involved in domestic terrorism type investigations and violent crime matters, which this is a part of a violent crime matter."

Martin Grime, Forensic Dog Trainer:
"He's a wide area screening asset that will locate human remains either in the whole or part or down to the cellular level."

Trained differently from other cadaver canines previously used in the search, Grime explains Eddie isn't the only new tool investigators will use.

Martin Grime, Forensic Dog Trainer:
"Although we've brought the dog with us, we've also brought certain search techniques and strategies that we've used with success in the UK and abroad, it's not just a question of the dog as some kind of miracle machine."

Grime says the dog has worked more than 200 homicide cases...some dating back 40 years. His experience, coupled with the dog's training, will hopefully provide the clues investigators are missing.

"I"m always optimistic, otherwise I wouldn't be here it's not a job you do day in and day out of your life if you're not optimistic."


The sniffer dog that helped detectives jail evil killer Trevor Hamilton has just returned from assisting the FBI with a murder probe in America.

Six-year-old English springer spaniel Eddie’s career took off internationally shortly after he returned to Ulster for a third time to help in the hunt for missing Arlene Arkinson.

Eddie helped police nail Hamilton after the victim-recovery dog found blood from Attracta Harron (63) on a mat from Hamilton’s burnt-out Hyundai car.

He burned it the day that he murdered the retired librarian.

Eddie found her body in a shallow grave in April 2003.

About Keela:

Pc Grime said: "As a result of this incident 350 items of clothing had been recovered which all needed testing for evidence.

"To have the items examined at the forensic lab would have cost £200 for each item.

"Keela managed to help in just one day which resulted in eight pieces of clothing being detected with blood stains on them."

She can search any area, including houses, cars, boats, both indoors and outdoors, and will lead her handler to spots of blood so small that humans cannot see them.

She screens textiles and can pick out traces of blood even after clothing has been washed many times or weapons cleaned.

She has had a number of operational finds recovering murder weapons, identifying the blood of a victim in a suspect's car and screening numerous amounts of clothing belonging to suspects.

Philomena McCann's description of the cadaver dogs, "what are they Lassie? They could be barking at anything."


McCanns Case: How can a dog sniff through concrete?
26 Feb 2008
Eddie is an enhanced victim recovery dog and is specially trained to detect the scent of human remains. He is able to smell through solid materials, like concrete, because of scientifically-based training techniques. ...

Sniffer Dogs used to seek Madeleine prove again their effectiveness
25 Feb 2008
The sniffer dogs brought to Praia da Luz by a South Yorkshire police special team, Eddie and Keela, are considered the best and only ones with the capacity to detect the scent of a corpse or blood even months after incidents happened. ...

Eddie and Keela versus Team McCann
14 Jan 2008
The sniffer dogs brought to Praia da Luz by a South Yorkshire police special team, Eddie and Keela, are considered the best and only ones with the capacity to detect the scent of a corpse or blood even months after incidents happened. ...

British Police want to question Foreign Office envoys and ...

7 Dec 2007
PJ detectives that followed those searches, with Keela and Eddie, the two specially trained dogs from South Yorkshire Police, had “every single detail of those operations recorded on video, including the collection of the samples sent ...

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