|Documents Reveal TSA Plan To Body-Scan Pedestrians, Train Passengers|
| March 2, 2011
Giving Transportation Security Administration agents a peek under your clothes may soon be a practice that goes well beyond airport checkpoints. Newly uncovered documents show that as early as 2006, the Department of Homeland Security has been planning pilot programs to deploy mobile scanning units that can be set up at public events and in train stations, along with mobile x-ray vans capable of scanning pedestrians on city streets.
The non-profit Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) on Wednesday published documents it obtained from the Department of Homeland Security showing that from 2006 to 2008 the agency planned a study of of new anti-terrorism technologies that EPIC believes raise serious privacy concerns. The projects range from what the DHS describes as “a walk through x-ray screening system that could be deployed at entrances to special events or other points of interest” to “covert inspection of moving subjects” employing the same backscatter imaging technology currently used in American airports.
The 173-page collection of contracts and reports, acquired through a Freedom of Information Act request, includes contracts with Siemens Corporations, Northeastern University, and Rapiscan Systems. The study was expected to cost more than $3.5 million.
One project allocated to Northeastern University and Siemens would mount backscatter x-ray scanners and video cameras on roving vans, along with other cameras on buildings and utility poles, to monitor groups of pedestrians, assess what they carried, and even track their eye movements. In another program, the researchers were asked to develop a system of long range x-ray scanning to determine what metal objects an individual might have on his or her body at distances up to thirty feet.
“This would allow them to take these technologies out of the airport and into other contexts like public streets, special events and ground transit,” says Ginger McCall, an attorney with EPIC. “It’s a clear violation of the fourth amendment that’s very invasive, not necessarily effective, and poses all the same radiation risks as the airport scans.”
It’s not clear to what degree the technologies outlined in the DHS documents have been implemented. Multiple contacts at the DHS public affairs office didn’t respond to a request for comment Wednesday afternoon. A privacy assessment included in the documents for one aspect of the plans that focused on train security suggests that images wouldn’t be tied to any personally identifiable information such as a subject’s name. Any images shared outside the project or used for training purposes would have faces blurred, and employees using the system would be trained to avoid privacy violations, the document says. If the scanners were to adopt privacy enhancements deployed in new versions of the airport full body scanners currently being tested by the TSA, they would also use nondescript outlines of people rather than defined images, only showing items of interest on the subject’s body.
But EPIC’s McCall says that those safeguards are irrelevant: If scanners are deployed in public settings, it doesn’t matter if they show full naked images or merely the objects in a user’s pockets. “When you’re out walking on the street, it’s not acceptable for an officer to come up and search your bag without probable cause or consent.,” she says. “This is the digital equivalent.”
In August of last year, Joe Reiss, the vice president of marketing of security contractor American Sciences & Engineering told me in an interview that the company had sold more than 500 of its backscatter x-ray vans to governments around the world, including some deployed in the U.S. Those vans are capable of scanning people, the inside of cars and even the internals of some buildings while rolling down public streets. The company claims that its systems’ “primary purpose is to image vehicles and their contents,” and that “the system cannot be used to identify an individual, or the race, sex or age of the person.” But Reiss admitted that the van scans do penetrate clothing, and EPIC president Marc Rotenberg called them “one of the most intrusive technologies conceivable.”
On top of exposing research into possible expansion of the scanner program, EPIC has also filed a lawsuit against the DHS that fights the use of the scanners in airports. The group is arguing its case in a D.C. appellate court next week, though some expect the scanners to be ruled constitutional.
Check out the full documents obtained by EPIC below: