Drive-By Scanning: Officials Expand Use and Dose of Radiation for Security Screening
Posted on Jan 28, 2012
by Michael Grabell, ProPublica
A test system was installed at the San Ysidro border crossing in San Diego in 2008 and portals will soon be deployed in El Paso and Laredo, Texas, and elsewhere on the Southwest border, according to contract documents obtained by the privacy group EPIC.
The portals, made by AS&E, can scan cars and buses from the top and sides as their drivers pass through at 3 mph.
The scanners’ X-rays have to penetrate metal and glass. But according to Customs and the company, the radiation dose is equivalent to an airport body scan.
The dose is low because Customs officers do not need as high a resolution to see bulk explosives or drugs as a TSA screener would need to see a tiny detonator or a razor blade, said Rez, the Arizona State physicist. He estimated the dose by analyzing the images with a computer program.
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Ginger McCall, director of EPIC’s Open Government program, is skeptical.
“You know what else started out as a secondary screening mechanism?” she asked. “Airport backscatter machines. The TSA said ‘don’t worry’ to the American public. ‘These are only going to be used as secondary screening devices.’ And look how that turned out.”
“Intelligent Pedestrian Surveillance”
There are now about 250 X-ray body scanners in airports nationwide. But government agencies are exploring additional uses for the technology.
In 2010, the military brought two TSA body scanners to the Pentagon visitors’ entrance, where they were tested by Defense Department staff. But plans were put on hold pending TSA testing of new privacy software that wouldn’t show an image of a person’s body.
“There’s now technology which makes it look like a cartoon figure,” said Chris Layman, spokesman for the Pentagon Force Protection Agency. “We wanted to make sure that if we did this, all the privacy concerns are taken care of.”
The Department of Homeland Security has funded research for walk-through X-ray body scanners that could be used at special events, and for long-range X-ray scanners to detect suicide bombers in crowds, according to documents obtained by EPIC.
Using similar backscatter technology, the walk-through scanner would speed up checks that now require people to stand with their hands over their heads while scanned. In tests of the long-distance scanner, according to contract documents, officials wanted to see whether it could identify people with metal and dense plastic from up to 30 feet away.
“Customers need a greater capability than what is currently available for detecting IEDs on people,” Homeland Security officials wrote in a statement of work for a technology dubbed the “Intelligent Pedestrian Surveillance Platform.” “This is especially relevant at high-volume public areas and entrances to important infrastructure.”
The radiation dose for such a scanner was listed in 2006 as 10 times higher than that of an airport scanner.
Intelligence released last summer that terrorist groups are considering implanting bombs in their bodies has raised concerns that the TSA would one day deploy X-ray scanners that can see into the body. In the past, the agency has declined to say whether it had ever considered the technology, known as “transmission X-rays.”
But other Homeland Security documents, also obtained by EPIC and provided to ProPublica, show that in 2010, Homeland Security’s science and technology division entered into an agreement with the FDA to test such technology.
“Transmission X-ray devices are being considered by DHS for passenger screening,” the statement of work says. “The proposed use of transmission methods for routine passenger screening may have significant health & safety implications and requires special study and evaluation.”
John Verrico, a spokesman for the department’s science and technology division, said the proposed tests never went forward and the discussion of transmission X-rays was ultimately removed from the final statement of work.
“Transmission X-ray systems have not been tested,” he said in an email. “Personnel have viewed vendors’ demonstrations at their locations to evaluate the maturity of the equipment and the state of the technology.”
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