Full-Body Scan Technology Deployed In Street-Roving Vans

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Thu Dec 8 06:44:08 PST 2011


Full-Body Scan Technology Deployed In Street-Roving Vans

As the privacy controversy around full-body security scans begins to simmer,
itbs worth noting that courthouses and airport security checkpoints arenbt
the only places where backscatter x-ray vision is being deployed. The same
technology, capable of seeing through clothes and walls, has also been
rolling out on U.S. streets.

American Science & Engineering, a company based in Billerica, Massachusetts,
has sold U.S. and foreign government agencies more than 500 backscatter x-ray
scanners mounted in vans that can be driven past neighboring vehicles to see
their contents, Joe Reiss, a vice president of marketing at the company told
me in an interview. While the biggest buyer of AS&Ebs machines over the last
seven years has been the Department of Defense operations in Afghanistan and
Iraq, Reiss says law enforcement agencies have also deployed the vans to
search for vehicle-based bombs in the U.S.

bThis product is now the largest selling cargo and vehicle inspection system
ever,b says Reiss.

Herebs a video of the vans in action.

The Z Backscatter Vans, or ZBVs, as the company calls them, bounce a narrow
stream of x-rays off and through nearby objects, and read which ones come
back. Absorbed rays indicate dense material such as steel. Scattered rays
indicate less-dense objects that can include explosives, drugs, or human
bodies. That capability makes them powerful tools for security, law
enforcement, and border control.

It would also seem to make the vans mobile versions of the same scanning
technique thatbs riled privacy advocates as itbs been deployed in airports
around the country. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) is
currently suing the DHS to stop airport deployments of the backscatter
scanners, which can reveal detailed images of human bodies. (Just how much
detail became clear last May, when TSA employee Rolando Negrin was charged
with assaulting a coworker who made jokes about the size of Negrinbs
genitalia after Negrin received a full-body scan.)

bItbs no surprise that governments and vendors are very enthusiastic about
[the vans],b says Marc Rotenberg, executive director of EPIC. bBut from a
privacy perspective, itbs one of the most intrusive technologies

AS&Ebs Reiss counters privacy critics by pointing out that the ZBV scans
donbt capture nearly as much detail of human bodies as their airport
counterparts. The companybs marketing materials say that its bprimary purpose
is to image vehicles and their contents,b and that bthe system cannot be used
to identify an individual, or the race, sex or age of the person.b

Though Reiss admits that the systems bto a large degree will penetrate
clothing,b he points to the lack of features in images of humans like the one
shown at right, far less detail than is obtained from the airport scans.
bFrom a privacy standpoint, Ibm hard-pressed to see what the concern or
objection could be,b he says.

But EPICbs Rotenberg says that the scans, like those in the airport,
potentially violate the fourth amendment. bWithout a warrant, the government
doesnbt have a right to peer beneath your clothes without probable cause,b he
says. Even airport scans are typically used only as a secondary security
measure, he points out. bIf the scans can only be used in exceptional cases
in airports, the idea that they can be used routinely on city streets is a
very hard argument to make.b

The TSAbs official policy dictates that full-body scans must be viewed in a
separate room from any guards dealing directly with subjects of the scans,
and that the scanners wonbt save any images. Just what sort of safeguards
might be in place for AS&Ebs scanning vans isnbt clear, given that the
company wonbt reveal just which law enforcement agencies, organizations
within the DHS, or foreign governments have purchased the equipment. Reiss
says AS&E has customers on ball continents except Antarctica.b

Reiss adds that the vans do have the capability of storing images. bSometimes
customers need to save images for evidentiary reasons,b he says. bWe do what
our customers need.b

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