• Nov 8th 2010 at 12:00AM
  • 500
American Science & Engineering X-Ray Truck. ASE©

It sounds like something straight out of George Orwell’s 1984: Government vans, equipped with full-body X-ray scanning machines, have been deployed on the streets of our cities, monitoring an unwitting populace for signs of illegal activity.

You could simply be going about your daily activities, not even doing something that should invite the suspicions of the authorities, but it doesn’t matter. The police can still scan you and the contents of your vehicle, and if they see something that arouses their suspicions, stop you immediately and search you, your vehicle, and its contents.

It might seem improbable, like Big Brother is watching you, but it’s fact, not fiction: According to the manufacturer, American Science & Engineering, the biggest buyer of its “mobile backscatter X-ray technology” has been the Department of Defense operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. It goes on to admit, however, that domestic law enforcement agencies -- that’s right, agencies inside in the United States -- have also deployed vans equipped with the technology to search for vehicle-based bombs.

Backscatter X-Rays: A Revealing Technology Is Revealed

The Z Backscatter Vans, or ZBVs, as American Science & Engineering calls them, bounce a narrow stream of X-rays off and through nearby objects, and analyze which rays return. Dense material, such as steel, absorb the rays. Scattered rays indicate less-dense objects that can include explosives, drugs, or human bodies. That capability makes backscatter X-rays powerful tools for security, law enforcement and border control.

So should the use of this technology make us feel safe? Or is it just another sign of the government using the war on terror (or is it the war on drugs?) as a convenient excuse to strip away basic Constitutional rights of an unaware populace? And is it even legal?

Improbable Technology Vs. Probable Cause

“First, it’s not clear that it is legal,” says Dr. Daniel Steinbock, professor of law and interim dean at the University of Toledo College of Law. “In fact, the Supreme Court has already ruled in Kyllo v. United States, that the use of similar technology, in this case, thermal imaging, is illegal under the Fourth Amendment’s restraint on the government performing searches without probable cause.”

Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), agrees; in fact, EPIC is currently suing the Department of Homeland Security to stop the usage of full-body-scan technology in airports. “It’s no surprise that governments and vendors are very enthusiastic about the vans,” he said in a recent interview with Forbes. “But from a privacy perspective, it’s one of the most intrusive technologies conceivable.”

ASE x-ray finds explosives in car trunk

American Science & Engineering X-Ray technology shows explosives in car trunk. ASE

In response, American Science & Engineering states that the ZBV’s primary purpose is to screen vehicles and containers for contraband and security threats. If a person, such as an illegal stowaway, is present in the vehicle or container being scanned, the system creates only a silhouette of that person, with no facial or body detail. The system cannot be used to identify an individual, or the race or age of the individual.

Health Concerns as Well as Privacy Concerns?

So there are definitely some invasion of privacy issues to consider, as well as the legality of the whole operation. But what about from a health perspective? Certainly a machine capable of providing such detailed images must be blasting some pretty powerful X-rays.

For comparison purposes, the X-ray dose received from the backscatter system is roughly equivalent to the radiation received in two minutes of airplane flight at altitude. Newer technologies require even less scanning time, further reducing individual X-ray exposure. The backscatter advanced imaging technology meets and exceeds the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard for personnel security screening systems using X-rays.

ASE x-ray finds drugs hidden in truck

American Science & Engineering X-Ray technology shows drugs hidden in truck. ASE

Freedom at What Price?

Advocates of the technology might argue that its use is necessary to preserve our freedoms and the American way of life, reasoning that sounds a lot like, “In order to preserve the Constitution, it is necessary to destroy it.”

Dr. Steinbock sums it up quite succinctly. “Without a warrant, the government doesn’t have a right to peer beneath your clothes without probable cause,” he says. Even airport scans are typically used only as a secondary security measure, he points out. “If the scans can only be used in exceptional cases in airports, the idea that they can be used routinely on city streets is a very hard argument to make.”


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  • 500 Comments
      • 8 Months Ago
      How can this technology invade a person's privacy when it cannot even identify the person, even their race? Of course, they would quote some airhead at a college - some of those people live to do harm to this country.
      • 8 Months Ago
      Well Hello Cancer and How are You Tumor? Don't get me wrong i'm all up for it, Just one thing... We Don't have enough money to be everywhere all at once. So Yeah it might save us from an explssion or two but what about the the rest of the getto cities this country has? Let me guess this idea might seem terrific for the government (not) and their going to think of a better idea.....To do X-ray from outter space? c-mon people lets start with vigilance in our community and giving a safe and well established familly a gun and let us take matters in our own hand.
      • 8 Months Ago
      Unfortunately they will find out, that most of us, dont have anything illegal, we are hard working, and hungry americans that are trying to survive the economic situations we are in. Im sorry to see a mercedes benz being used instead of a Ford. Come on guys, buy American.
      enopaint
      • 8 Months Ago
      The only people griping about this are the Republicans that are the ones the law is putting this thing togeather for.
      • 8 Months Ago
      This does not sound legal nor healthy for those exposed to these high levels of radiation.
      vjsciacca
      • 8 Months Ago
      I wonder how anyone can argue against the use of these X-Ray Trucks. 1st, they can identify, illegal drugs, trafficking of illegal persons, weapons, explosives, nuclear and biological weapons and practically every other illegal contraband. and secondly, they will reduce the likelihood of us becoming victims of our enemies and will protect our law enforcement officials. Its got my vote!!!
      noadmail
      • 8 Months Ago
      Cities are already using it with their traffic police to give cheap shot tickets to people unaware. They look for seat belts at night and just about anything else they feel is necessary to produce traffic fines and income under the guies of "safety"
      ravatar252
      • 8 Months Ago
      Illegal, and rude, we the people do not need any more intrusions, or irradiation.
      • 8 Months Ago
      its just another right these commy basterds in washington want to destroy you cant give up liberty for freedom because there one in the same and the only terrorist you need to worry about are the one weve elected into office you sheeple will beleive anything with out learning the truth do youre homework and preserve amarica for what it was ment to be free. you have the right to life liberty and the persuit of happyness and what makes me happy might not make you but i still have the right
      • 8 Months Ago
      it's all fun and games until someone inside that truck gets hurt.
      • 8 Months Ago
      Just remember that they are not only using our so called tax dollars they are selling AMERICA to other countries. What happens when those countries want to collect? Time to pay up pay, time to pay our debt. What can we pay when the majority of the population is out of work? Except for the "GOVERNMENT".Oh wait SLAVES! Can anyone speak chinese I hav a feeling I should start taking lessons
      • 8 Months Ago
      I wonder if they can detect which finger I'm waving at them!
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