It Happened to Me Toronto (a.k.a. Accordion City)

Passing the Sniff Test at the CN Tower

One of my favourite bits of dialogue from a “Slappy Squirrel” segment of the old Animaniacs cartoon:

Bumpo (a young dog): Can I sniff you, Uncle Stinky?

Stinkbomb (an old dog): No! Don’t be weird.

It’s been a while since I last visited the CN Tower — it was probably

2001 when I last set foot inside the building. These days, I go only

when showing it to out-of-town family visitors, which we had on Thanksgiving

weekend. Wendy’s parents came up from Boston for a triple-occasion

weekend that covered my nephew Ryan’s christening, her birthday and

Canadian Thanksgiving. We had an extended family party on Sunday;

Monday night was for dinner at the Tower with her parents, my parents

and us.

I was surpised to see a row of three of these devices at the entrance to the hallway leading to elevators:

Photo: Smiths Detection Ionscan Sentinel II security portal.

It’s the Ionscan Sentinel II Contraband Detection Portal, a device manufactured by Smiths Detection. They’re very Star Trek,

from outward appearance right down to the touch panels and female 

female voice. Here’s what the Sentinel II does, according to the

promotional copy on the web site:

Only the SENTINEL offers true head-to-toe screening.  Gentle puffs

of air dislodge any particles trapped on the body, hair, clothing and

shoes.  These particles are then directed into the instrument for


IONSCAN®  technology combined with preconcentration technology

developed by Sandia National Laboratories allows for the high

throughput of screening up to 7 people per minute.

Trace amounts of more than 40 substances are detected and identified

in seconds.  Results are displayed in an easy-to-understand fashion. 

Should a detection be made, a digital camera is included to take a

photo of the person for easy identification. 

It detects the following explosives:

  • RDX
  • PETN (a main ingredient of plastic explosives)
  • TNT
  • Semtex (notorious for being difficult to detect due to its “scentlessness”)
  • NG (you probably know this better as nitroglycerin)
  • “and others”

and the following drugs, listed with their stereotypically-associated subcultures:

  • Cocaine (yuppies)
  • Heroin (rock musicians)
  • PCP (freaks and crazies)
  • THC (hipsters, hippies, yuppies, rock musicians)
  • Methamphetamine (bikers, rural working class)
  • Ecstasy (ravers)
  • “and others”

The scanning process is pretty quick. You walk into the portal and

stand on a spot designated by two footprint-shaped markers. A large

number of nozzles that look just like the air nozzles above the seats

in airplanes spray you with a few puffs of air. This process loosens

particulate matter on your clothes and body. This is followed by the

sound of a motor, which I assume powers an air intake pump, which draws

in the loosened particles for analysis. Based on the analysis, you are

then either free to go or quickly dragged off to the body cavity search


The entire scanning process takes less than ten seconds, from entrance

to exit. The promotional copy boasts that it can scan 7 people a

minute, or 420 per hour. Three of these machines gives the CN Tower

checkpoint a total throughput of 1260/hour. This probably would’ve

exceeded the old throughput of the elevators, when there were only four

of them. Back then, you’d occasionally hear of people waiting for about

an hour for an elevator. There are now six elevators; two were added

when they moved to the the stairs to the central core, freeing up room

for more elevator shafts.

All of us save Dad went through the portal. Dad uses a walker, which is

too wide. He was directed to another area to the side of the portals,

where he was chemically analyzed the “old” way — the security guard

rubbed a gauze swab over some of his clothes and his walker and

placed it into a scanner.

Searching people for explosives before they enter a public building

isn’t a new thing. From the World Trade Center’s re-opening in the

mid-nineties until September 11, 2001, it was standard procedure to

undergo search before you could use the elevator, a procedure which

probably added ten minutes to your commute time if you worked there.

They were pretty through when I was last there in 1999; they even asked

me to open my accordion so they could inspect its innards. Terrorism is

partly about being splashy, and blowing up prominent and symbolic

buildings is high on the “splashy” list.

Getting them installed at the CN Tower is also good advertising for

Smiths Detection. It’s a prominent tourist attraction, and having the

Sentinel II prominently displayed at its entrance ensures that people

all from all over the world — or hey, a local blogger — will talk

about them.

In addition to the CN Tower, the Sentinel II has also been installed at “one of Canada’s major nuclear power facilities” (the press release doesn’t get any more specific).

I wonder why you don’t see more of these devices at airports. I suppose it’s still relatively new — JFK installed some late last year

and I’ve heard that they’re also in the Miami airport. I also suppose

that they’re quite expensive, and unlike other expensive airport

amenities, they’re not revenue generators.

(And ‘fess up: when it was time to buy smoke detectors for your apartment or house, did you buy top-of-the-line?)


Also of note: these things only detect explosives and drugs, and drugs,

in spite of what the US Government may tell you, aren’t part of the

terrorist arsenal (the bulk of their money probably comes from your

super unleaded purchases). They

don’t detect guns or knives — remember, the 9/11 terrorists used

boxcutters — and metal detectors can’t detect those newfangled ceramic

blades, such as those Kyocera kitchen knives Rob and Leslie gave to us as wedding presents.

9 replies on “Passing the Sniff Test at the CN Tower”

Wait, drugs are part of the terrorist arsenal? From the context, it sounds like you mean the opposite..?

Ummmm…. what exactly is someone going to do with a knife or gun in the CN tower? Hijack it and ram it into another building? Given what I will assume is the defined threat model (some nutjob with a backpack full of high explosive deciding the make a statement with their manner of suicide) then the security force would not care as much about either guns or knives. A metal detector can catch some of these; being both cheap and high throughput I can’t see any problem with using them in addition to the scanner. A low-detectability gun or a knife is almost a non-problem unless someone has developed a ceramic AK-47 while I was on vacation…

The drug sniffing is out of place, but it probably came free with the scanner tech.

My remarks about the Sentinel’s inability to detect knives and guns was in the context of its use at airports rather than the Tower.

As for the drug detection, it may have an unintended use for the Tower. If it spots cocaine on you, you should automatically qualify for the unlisted wines at the restaurant — the markup’s a little on the outrageous side.

I recently read somewhere (Bruce Schneier?) that one of the problems with these devices is that they are getting too sensitive and will result in enough false-positives that they won’t be trusted by the screeners. If I didn’t partake in some of the drugs that this thing tests for, I could probably remember where I saw it. Of course, I could be completely wrong and this is just a really boring hallucination 🙂

Wouldn’t it be fun if it could do pregnancy tests too? Or– even better– PATERNITY TESTS!

— Ice Queen

Oh man I remember going through one of these in Vegas! Going through the airport half drunk/half hung over and getting to go through this star trek transporter that blasted me with wooshes of air was the perfect finale to my weekend!


Dosn’t really work for drugs.
Security theater.
“Friends”have effortsly brought through bags of coke and weed with one hitters to boot!
The pat down is a joke
And those air spray things are just a waste of money for the loveable security theater.
Never tried to get explosives through for obvious reasons.

Ever since I visited the CN Tower when I was like 5, those things have frightened me. I guess it’s just the association nowadays.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *