A whiff of trouble

How do you spot a criminal or terrorist before they get the chance to put whatever wicked plans they have into action? Criminologists have put a huge amount of effort into answering that question over the years and now researchers at City University hope to give them a helping hand by developing a sensor that can ‘smell’ the fear and anxiety associated with being a bad guy.

The ability to detect the ‘fear pheromone’ could, the project team hopes, lead to detectors at airports and other public spaces that sniff out criminal intent in the same way a trained dog can smell drugs.

A fascinating prospect, but as the researchers themselves admit one that needs a good deal more work before it becomes a reality. The effects of strong perfume, for example. Certainly, the knowledge that a heavy dose of aftershave would make you undetectable would hole the system below the waterline from the word go. Then again, maybe anyone in an airport security queue with the smell of a 1970s lothario would instantly become the object of suspicion, sending sales of male grooming products plunging because they are likely to get you arrested.

Surely the biggest problem for the team, however, is separating criminal fear and anxiety from good old honest fear and anxiety. Nervous about flying? Worried you might miss your plane? Stressed out because the kids won’t behave? Unless the ‘fear detector’ has it right on the button, you’d better have a good alibi ready.

Andrew Lee, Editor