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.”
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.
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.”