Van-mounted body scanners coming to a street near you?

By Daniel Tencer
Wednesday, August 25, 2010 21:45 EDT
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US law enforcement agencies are among the customers of a Massachusetts-based company that is selling full-body scanners to be mounted inside vans and used on streets, says a report from Forbes.

American Science & Engineering, based in Billerica, Mass., told Forbes blogger Andy Greenberg that it has sold more than 500 “Z Backscatter Vans,” mobile x-ray scanning units that can be used to detect bombs, contraband and smuggled people inside nearby cars.

The company says its largest customer by far is the US military, which has purchased the machines to search for car bombs and other threats in war zones. But AS&E’s vice president of marketing, Joe Reiss, said US law enforcement agencies have also bought the machines “to search for vehicle-based bombs in the US,” Greenberg reports.

AS&E has not revealed the names of its US law enforcement customers, or how many of the machines they bought. But Reiss describes the van-mounted scanning system as “the largest selling cargo and vehicle inspection system ever.”

News of the mobile scanners has alarmed civil libertarians who worry the technology could be used to violate people’s privacy without legal justification.

“If they are in fact being used on public streets, that would be a major violation of the Constitution,” writes Jay Stanley of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty program. “In fact, it’s hard to believe that any counsel at any government agency would sign off on allowing these vans to be used in that way.”

“The use of this technology constitutes a search, and under the Fourth Amendment, a search can only be carried out with a warrant. There are exceptions to that, but none of them would apply if this technology is being used on public streets,” Stanley writes.

He notes that the courts have created exemptions to the Fourth Amendment protection from undue search and seizure, and law enforcement officers are generally allowed to search cars. But Stanley notes that they have that ability only when probable cause is present — something that would not be the case if body scanners were examining numerous people on public streets.

Stanley speculates that some of the machines bought for domestic use are headed for Customs and Border Protection, where they could be legally used to scan cars crossing into the United States.

AS&E’s Reiss says his company’s machines are not as intrusive as the body scanners being used in airports. He told Forbes‘ Greenberg that the machines can’t reproduce images of people’s faces and bodies as clearly as airport machines.

“From a privacy standpoint, I’m hard-pressed to see what the concern or objection could be,” he said.

The body scanners currently being expanded to most major US airports have caused some controversy among privacy advocates. While the Department of Homeland Security initially claimed the machines would not have the ability to store nude images of passengers, the Electronic Privacy Information Center discovered earlier this year that the machines being installed at airports have a setting that allows them to store and transmit the images.

There have been several high-profile cases of screening technology being abused. In one heavily-publicized incident, a TSA worker in Miami who was scanned as part of a training session allegedly assaulted a co-worker who had mocked the size of his genitals.

Recently, the parents of a 12-year-old girl were outraged when she was taken aside for a full-body scan at a Florida airport without her guardian’s consent.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center has filed a lawsuit against the DHS asking for the program to be suspended “pending an independent review.”

While AS&E has not disclosed which US agencies have bought the van-mounted machines for domestic use, the ACLU’s Jay Stanley warns law enforcement agencies not to get carried away with their new technology.

“Unless they have probable cause to search a specific vehicle, government agencies had better not be roaming US streets conducting backscatter X-ray scans of vehicles and their occupants (much less pedestrians, cyclists, etc.) without their knowledge or consent,” he writes. “The Constitution may have taken a battering in recent years, but on this point it remains clear.”

With earlier reporting from Raw Story

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