• Nov 8, 2010
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.”


I'm reporting this comment as:

Reported comments and users are reviewed by Autoblog staff 24 hours a day, seven days a week to determine whether they violate Community Guideline. Accounts are penalized for Community Guidelines violations and serious or repeated violations can lead to account termination.


    • 1 Second Ago
  • 500 Comments
      pruettee
      • 20 Hours Ago
      For my make love not war old friends, quit bitching. You brought this on yourself. This did not start yesterday. Go back to the 60s.
      • 20 Hours Ago
      They can x-ray my ****** ass and then kiss it.
      ray harber
      • 20 Hours Ago
      this just shows how out of control the law enforcement agencys in this country are,our goverment needs to be brought under control.but we just keep turning a blind eye to stuff like this.
      • 20 Hours Ago
      to those that say if you're not doing anything you shouldn't be worried scare me the most so if this is ok i guess it's also ok to have the police kick your door in just to see if you are doing something illegal.because this is the same thing.
      ravatar252
      • 20 Hours Ago
      Illegal, and rude, we the people do not need any more intrusions, or irradiation.
      • 20 Hours Ago
      why would honest people mind, i,m pissed that the truck is a mercades, i worked my life on trucks repairing, i thought then whats with this canadian building fords etc, american work one way or the other. leave off fenders bumpers or whatever it takes to make it american product.. cut out the pay back to pols and crooked business, joe
      • 20 Hours Ago
      This is nothing new. Government has been spying on the poplace for many years. It is not science fiction, re: cell phones, TVs, Navigation , etc, etc. Don't know if it's all bad. All countries have some form of intrusuve gadgets. It,s 2010. We will have to live with it.
      jensengirls3
      • 20 Hours Ago
      buggsy - careful what you support. this is very unconstitutional and unAmerican. Next they'll be beating down your door at midnight without probable cause. This slope is very slippery.
      Velocity105
      • 20 Hours Ago
      People say "sounds like 1984?" Ummm, it doesn't sound like 1984, it is 1984. If anyone is familiar with the book, Orwell describes cameras positioned at every location humans inhabit including in their homes. How is any part of society impervious to this technology now? Airports, stores, city streets, stoplights, hotels, apartment complexes... And now they can look right through you or into your car even into Christmas presents you bought for the kids with the usual ephiphany of excuses. Who knows if these people drive by homes and use backscatter to look inside? If this doesn't raise some serious alarms in society and scare people even a little imagine how things will be in 30 years with the technology they have right now. And I thought London with all it's CCTV's was bad but this is totally illegal, immoral and improper. God save us from ourselves.
      jensengirls3
      • 20 Hours Ago
      supaseals7 - welcome to russia, china, north korea, cuba ................... This is what they do over in those nations. They claim they are doing this kind of thing for the protection of the masses. Then they grossly missuse it to impliment control and retract freedom of the populace.
      • 20 Hours Ago
      A Mercedes!? Wow. We're rich! You can bet the more sophisticted tech gets the more someone will find a way around it. I want a ride!
      • 20 Hours Ago
      Our world needs to be made safe. If that is what it takes to clean it up so be it. When people won't do the right things anything goes until it is cleand out. Drastic things call for drastic measures to bee taken. When the problem is solved it would stop. All it would take is people to shape up.
    • Load More Comments