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Drive-By Scanning: Officials Expand Use and Dose of Radiation for Security Screening
Posted on Jan 28, 2012
by Michael Grabell, ProPublica
But the rapid expansion raises serious questions about whether the United States is sacrificing safety in the name of security.
“Because of the wide proliferation of these things, we don’t know who’s using them and how frequently,” said Peter Rez, an Arizona State University physicist who has criticized the use of the machines. “It’s not that the radiation from these machines is very high. It’s ‘Does the benefit outweigh the risk?’”
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According to a company presentation obtained by a civil liberties group, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a backscatter van delivers a radiation dose about twice that of an airport body scanner.
Customs and Border Protection has purchased 75 backscatter vans for use at border crossings, ports, Border Patrol checkpoints and even the Super Bowl, according to agency records. Customs spokeswoman Jenny Burke said passengers must exit the vehicle before the scan.
While the Transportation Security Administration hasn’t bought them, it tested them at a Delaware ferry crossing in 2004 and at a Long Island ferry crossing in 2009, spokesman Greg Soule said. In the first test, passengers weren’t in the vehicles. But in the second test, passengers remained in the vehicles but could opt out, he said. Another TSA test in 2009 was conducted in northern New Jersey on empty commuter train cars in a rail yard.
The X-ray vans have also shown up on American streets. In 2010, Homeland Security officials conducted an exercise scanning tractor-trailers on Interstate 20. And the New York Police Department uses the vans.
The NYPD has declined to release details about the use of the machines.
ABC News reporters Richard Esposito and Ted Gerstein provide one of the few accounts of the backscatter van in a book they wrote chronicling a year inside NYPD’s bomb squad. Describing the security ahead of President Bush’s motorcade to the 2004 Republican convention, they wrote that every vehicle entering the street in front of the hotel was ordered to drive between two unmarked white vans, which X-rayed each vehicle for bombs.
Such covert use of radiation, if done without informed consent, would violate the industry standard.
“The institution operating the system shall inform each person being screened that the system emits radiation,” the standard states. It also requires that people be told the radiation dose and that there be a visible indicator when X-rays are emitted.
Joe Reiss, AS&E’s vice president of marketing, said although the vans are designed for covert use, the vans comply with the standard because they have two lights that flash when a scan is in progress.
Kevin Barry, an NYPD bomb squad detective who retired in 2002, said that when he was there, the police ensured that the area was clear of people any time they used X-ray equipment and that officers wore film badges to monitor radiation exposure.
“They’re very cognizant of the fact that if there’s a radiation issue that they have to monitor the health issue,” he said.
But even if a violation were discovered, there is little the FDA can do because the standard is voluntary and not a federal regulation.
The FDA, which said it doesn’t regulate the “use” of security scanners emitting radiation, referred questions to New York State, which also said it does not regulate the scanners and referred questions to the New York City Department of Health, which also said it does not regulate the devices.
Customs and Border Protection is also installing 35 drive-through X-ray portals purchased with economic stimulus money, according to a company report posted on the government’s stimulus website, Recovery.gov.
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