Dec 9, 2013
Airport X-Ray Scanners Hit the Road
Posted on Sep 8, 2010
By G.W. Schulz, CIR
This article was produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting.
While debate continues in the United States over whether whole-body imagers now being used at airports to detect weapons violate privacy rights and even create potential health risks, manufacturers of the technology are opening deeper opportunities for themselves elsewhere that could make the controversial machines an even bigger part of everyday life.
A Massachusetts-based company claims that government agencies here and abroad have purchased hundreds of its van-mounted X-ray devices that reveal the contents of passing vehicles without authorities relying on a manual search to find human stowaways, secret compartments full of narcotics or bomb ingredients.
An executive of American Science & Engineering told Forbes privacy writer Andy Greenberg late last month that the X-ray scanners are most popular with the Defense Department, a fact borne out by federal contracting data. Troops face insurgent bomb architects in Iraq and Afghanistan capable of stymieing the world’s most powerful armed forces with crude, MacGyver-style explosives, so vehicle X-ray technology in a place like Baghdad makes sense.
But marketing vice president Joe Reiss said they’re also being snapped up by law enforcement officials here, another fact supported by public records, which list at least five major federal agencies including the Department of Homeland Security as purchasers of the equipment, in addition to the Pentagon. “This product is now the largest selling cargo and vehicle inspection system ever,” Reiss boasted to Forbes.
The same privacy defenders who refer to full-body airport scanners as “virtual strip searches,” like Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, are asking similar questions about whether the common use by law enforcement of so-called Z Backscatter Vans would comply with the Constitution.
Video depicting vehicle X-ray scanners in operation.
Airport scanners see underneath the clothing of travelers, and for that the government needs a warrant, Rotenberg argues. Like other probing surveillance technologies, penetrating vehicles at random regardless of whether the driver and passengers are believed to have done anything wrong turns the legal notion of probable cause on its head. The machines are also able to store images long-term, unlike what the Transportation Security Administration has promised of full-body systems.
According to Forbes:
Specific privacy protections may indeed be elusive. But it’s wrong to suggest no paper trail exists to tell a larger story about how much business AS&E is doing with the U.S. government. Available public records are maddeningly inconsistent and critical information is often missing, such as what the government actually purchased.
What we can say conservatively is that since 2004, AS&E has inked deals with agencies in Washington for its mobile X-ray machines totaling at least $188 million, a figure that includes things like maintenance agreements and technical training. Much of that spending comes from the military. However, the Homeland Security Department in the last two years has signed $33.3 million in contracts covering at least 42 scanners for its U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The exact quantity of machines may be higher.
The State Department bought another 30 mobile X-ray vehicles for $26 million, many of which were then deployed in Mexico for drug war and border security purposes, records show. The feds acquired five Backscatter vans last year valued at $4.6 million that were donated to the Mexican government as part of the Merida Initiative, an effort launched in 2008 to aid the nation’s southern neighbor in combating organized crime and drug traffickers.
There is no equivalent contracting database to view purchases among state and local governments, so it’s difficult to tell how vigorously law enforcement officials at that level may be pursuing X-ray vans. But certainly the use of similar technologies by county sheriffs and metro police is growing at a rate that agitates privacy activists, for example, license-plate readers and speed cameras.
1 2 NEXT PAGE >>>
Previous item: A French Leftist Ritual Takes On Sarkozy
Next item: Getting to Know Our Celebrity President
New and Improved Comments