Sniff of suspicion:1

‘In the endless warfare of contemporary political order in which the complicated cultural practices surrounding drugs, the social dynamics surrounding crime and the political tactics surrounding terrorism are reduced to an amorphous and ubiquitous ‘enemy’ of good order, police discretion becomes a key to victory. And in this war, the sniffer-dog is in the front line’.
Mark Neocleous, professor of the critique of political economy, Brunel University, discusses ‘The Smell of Power: a contribution to the critique of the Sniffer Dog’ in Radical Philosophy.

There has been a significant increase in the use of dogs around public transport terminals over the last decade, which is often said to be about the fight in the ‘war on drugs’ but it is also clear that the increased presence of police dogs in public spaces is part of more generalized security measures: dogs are becoming the public face of the ‘war on terror’, and thus the sniffer-dog is both an emblematic and a symptomatic figure in the universal warfare of contemporary order.

The use of dogs in security roles has increased so much that they now have their own publication, the US-based K9 Cop Magazine.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the US state’s key agency for military research, has developed a ‘Unique Signature Detection Project’, formerly known as the ‘Odortype Detection Program’, and has been working since 2007 on a system of Identification Based on Scent (IBIS).

The political purpose is to raise the possibility of estimating the amount of odour that a human body might produce and the distance that might enable a dog to smell a person. In virtually all cases the focus of the research points to the sniffer-dog as key to the politics of smell.

Police forces work on the assumption that police dogs can detect a whole range of substances on a person: this means that for the most part the dogs are used not to identify individuals, along the lines of a fingerprint or retinal scan, but to identify (or, more correctly, to appear to identify) substances.

‘DARPA wants to be able to detect, track, and even positively identify them [criminals and terrorists] from a distance … using nothing more than the heat and sweat that emanate from a person’s pores’, notes the Information Awareness Office report ‘Detecting Sweaty, Smelly Security Threats’. Both the Department of Homeland Security in the USA and the Ministry of Defence in the UK fund research into smell, in the form of Remote Air Sampling Canine Olfaction (RASCO).

In the early 1960s the CIA produced a fairly lengthy report called Human Scent and Its Detection; the document considers in great detail the science of sweat production, including several paragraphs discussing the different functions of the eccrine, apocrine and sebaceous glands, and noting the different ways in which they produce smells.

RASCO is said to be more accurate than a retinal scan because a person’s smell is thought to be less controllable than their eyes, and dogs are trained to smell past the attempts to camouflage real smells with false ones: such projects have been assisted by the chemical industries aiming to get in on the security bandwagon: the European Network of Excellence in Artificial Olfaction and the International Society for Olfaction and Chemical Sensing now list security politics as a major research interest.

Dogs are frequently employed in order to ‘catch’ a whiff of drugs on people as they go by and have therefore been a key weapon in the ‘war on drugs’. One of the main functions of the dogs, as the public face of the ‘war on terror’, has been identical to their role in the war on drugs: to justify ‘stop and search’ routines.

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