Microsoft to test ‘Total Recall’-style personnel scanners at two data centers, Redmond office and mystery East Coast location

Images from a specifications document for the RS QPS201 Quick Personnel Security Scanner, as filed with the FCC by Rohde Schwarz in conjunction with an application for installation at Microsoft.

Microsoft is poised to test a new millimeter-wave body scanner at four locations, according to two filings made with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) over the past weeks.

The device being tested will be an innovative walk-through scanner that uses millimeter-wave radiation and machine learning algorithms to detect weapons, currency and possibly even objects as small as a cellphone SIM card.

Like modern airport scanners, the Rohde Schwarz QPS201 can detect ceramic and plastic objects as well as metal, but it does so with just two fixed panels that can scan a person in a fraction of a second. It’s reminiscent of the scanners depicted in the 1990 film “Total Recall,” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“The scanner searches for anomalies indicating unusual objects rather than for certain items, enabling it to discover unknown and new threats,” wrote Rohde Schwarz in its FCC filings.

According to the company, Microsoft plans to conduct a competitive prototype evaluation of a security solution. “Microsoft intends to evaluate the effectiveness of the scanner device within a vestibule together with other security equipment to create a self-service physical security gate,” wrote Rohde Schwarz.

The scanner company specified four separate locations for the tests, which start in March. One is a Microsoft office in Redmond called RTC-3. The coordinates of two other locations correspond to the parking lot of a bank in Quincy, Washington, and a single family home in Boydton, Va.

The fourth location appears even less likely – the middle of a highway cloverleaf exchange in suburban Maryland, entirely inaccessible to pedestrians.

Microsoft would neither confirm nor deny the tests, while Rohde Schwarz did not reply to multiple requests for comment.

However, in April last year, Microsoft announced Azure Government Secret, cloud services built exclusively for US military and intelligence agencies for classified secret-level data. Part of Azure Government Secret are two secret data centers located “over 500 miles apart, providing geographic resilience in disaster recovery scenarios.”

According to Department of Defense guidelines, such data centers are required to have extensive physical security systems, including video cameras, motion-activated sensors, and biometric automated security gates.

Microsoft has been expanding its overall offerings for high-security military and government cloud installations. In October last year, Microsoft was awarded the coveted JEDI contract to build the Pentagon’s next-generation cloud platform, although Amazon is protesting the contract award. The filing makes no explicit connection to the JEDI deal.

The scanner test location at the parking lot in Quincy is about a mile from Microsoft’s Columbia Data Center, a gargantuan 270-acre site that underwent a major expansion in 2018. The house in Virginia is a similarly short stroll to Microsoft’s Boydton Data Center, which expanded for the sixth time last year, with the single largest corporate purchase of solar energy in the United States. The two centers are well over 500 miles (actually 2600 miles) apart.

If these are the two Azure Government Secret data centers, then what of the mysterious fourth scanner test location in Columbia, Md.? Rohde Schwarz’s US headquarters is about six miles distant, but there appear to be no Microsoft-owned facilities nearby. The only likely spot for a test appears to be a highly secured building nearby, once used for semiconductor and photonic research but leased to an unidentified US government tenant since 2002.

Every FCC form warns applicants that the agency can punish them for willfully making false statements, such as incorrect test locations, by revoking permits or imposing fines. However, says Steve Crowley, a consulting wireless engineer, “There is not a ‘hard-look’ approach to processing these experimental, short-term applications and staff may let it slide.”

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