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Federal regulators ease restrictions on technology that can see through walls


3:10 p.m., February 13, 2003

WASHINGTON Technology that can see through walls to help police track criminals and aid firefighters searching for victims received a boost from federal regulators Thursday.

Responding to industry requests, the Federal Communications Commission tweaked restrictions on ultra-wideband technology, which sends millions of narrow pulses each second over airwaves to get a precise reading of an object's location and distance. The signals also can carry huge amounts of data over a short distance.

The technology has many potential uses, from wireless home networks of computers and other appliances to collision-avoidance systems in cars. Ground penetrating radar systems using ultra-wideband can detect objects or people buried under earth or debris.

"While I hope we have no reason to ever use ultra-wideband to assist search-and-rescue teams in a disaster, I'll be glad that we have this tool available should the need arise," said FCC Commissioner Michael Copps.

The FCC established rules a year ago permitting the marketing and operation of ultra-wideband products. The latest rule changes will allow manufacturers to design devices that gather clearer images, said Edmond Thomas, chief of the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology.

The agency is still studying the new technology to ensure it doesn't interfere with other broadcasts.

Privacy advocates worry that the technology could be abused.

"It's yet another example of a technology that endows the police with superhuman powers," said Barry Steinhardt of the American Civil Liberties Union. "The technologies are being developed at light speed but the law that governs their use is still back in the Stone Age."

In June 2001, the Supreme Court ruled that police must get warrants before using devices that search through walls for criminal activity. The ruling involved police use of a heat-sensing device that led to marijuana charges against an Oregon man.

The FCC announced its rule changes at a demonstration of ultra-wideband devices at the agency's headquarters.

Several companies showed off ground-penetrating radar devices that resemble heavy-duty lawnmowers with flat computer screens mounted on their handles. The devices can locate utility pipes and lines underground or in concrete.

Time Domain Corp., based in Huntsville, Ala., demonstrated a "through-wall motion detector," a briefcase-sized, 10-pound device that can be held up to a wall. A person moving behind the wall shows up as a colorful blob on a small display. The detector is intended for use by law enforcement, firefighters and the military.


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