Despite previous assurances by federal agencies that images from body scanners were not saved or recorded, fears of indiscriminate scanner use rise as the US Marshal Service admits that it stored more than 35,000 body scan images collected from a security checkpoint.
First discovered by a Freedom of Information Act request sent to the agency by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a civil liberties group, the stored images of body scans were taken from February 2010 through July 2010 at a Florida courthouse during the testing of the machines.
Body scanners, which penetrate clothing to provide a detailed image used to detect concealed weapons, have been at the center of a privacy debate since Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that scanners would soon appear in virtually every major airport. Authorities argue they are more consistent than traditional magnetometers, but critics have likened them to a virtual strip search.
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A lawsuit filed by EPIC against the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which is administering the body scans to airports, calls for an injunction on airport body scans and argues that the body scanners violate the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits “unreasonable” searches, and that there are not sufficient formal regulations governing their use.
“TSA is not being straightforward with the public about the capabilities of these devices,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Washington, DC-based EPIC. “This is the Department of Homeland Security subjecting every US traveler to an intrusive search that can be recorded without any suspicion – I think it’s outrageous.”
Though the body scans expected to be deployed at airports and those used in the Florida courthouse are administered by different agencies – the US Marshals are part of the Department of Justice, whereas the TSA operates under the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security – they both cast suspicion on the reliability of federal assurances that graphic images will not be saved.
The TSA has claimed that “scanned images cannot be stored or recorded,” but in another disclosure said that it required all airport body scanners purchased to be capable of storing and transmitting images for “testing, training and evaluation purposes.” The agency says these capabilities are not activated when the devices are installed in airports.
“These devices are designed and deployed in a way that allows the images to be routinely stored and recorded, which is exactly what the Marshals Service is doing,” Rotenberg said. “We think it’s significant.”
Six US senators wrote a letter with a sharp rebuke to the US Marshals Service, calling for a “full explanation” of why the images were stored and saying they were “disturbed” to learn that the thousands of images scanned at the security checkpoint had been secretly recorded.
The letter was signed by a bipartisan group: Homeland Security Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), Thomas Carper (D-Delaware), Saxby Chambliss (R-Georgia) and Johnny Isakson (R-Georgia).
In response to media reports, the Marshals Service issued a statement saying the pictures are not accessible without an administrative password, and were not accessed until the agency received a request for them from EPIC.
“Everyone knows they’re being recorded when they come into the courthouse” because of all the security cameras, a US Marshals supervisor was quoted in the Orlando Sentinel as saying. “The images [from the scans] are not saved for any specific purpose.”
Randall Amster, a writer and activist teaching Peace Studies at Prescott College, said “the matter of full-body scanners presents a critical cultural referendum on basic questions of freedom and autonomy.”
“The circumstances under which the issue is being presented – a climate of fear instilled by a well-hyped reminder of the shared trauma of 9/11,” Amster wrote in Truthout, “make it almost impossible to have confidence in a sound and sober resolution.”
The equipment used in whole-body imaging scans is significantly more invasive than that of security camera footage, but technologies vary. Millimeter wave systems, like that used in Florida, capture fuzzier images than backscatter X-ray machines, which are able to show precise anatomical details.
In the United Kingdom, minors were barred from passing through full-body scanners over fears of breaching child pornography laws.
However, the TSA continues to maintain that body scanning machines are constitutional. “The program is designed to respect individual sensibilities regarding privacy, modesty and personal autonomy to the maximum extent possible,” a statement said, “while still performing its crucial function of protecting all members of the public from potentially catastrophic events.”
In addition, the effectiveness of body scanning equipment has been questioned. An internal Department of Homeland Security report obtained by USA Today found that security screeners at two of the nation’s busiest airports did not find fake bombs brought through security by undercover agents posing as passengers.
In their letter, the senators suggested the Marshals Service switch to a technology called automatic target recognition, which uses a machine instead of employees to examine the image.
As the Washington Post reports, the need for more full-body scanners at airports has been touted by individuals within and outside the administration, such as former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who may have direct stakes in the increase.
Chertoff’s security consulting agency, Chertoff Group, includes Rapsican Systems, the US government’s largest supplier of body scanning machines. Chertoff has been an advocate for the technology since his time in the Bush administration, the Post reported, and, in 2005, Homeland Security ordered its first batch of scanners from Rapsican.
Similar technology is now expected to be rolling out on to the street in backscatter x-ray scanners mounted in vans, reported Forbes, that can be driven past vehicles to see their contents.
American Science & Engineering has sold more than 500 of the machines to clients including the US government – a step sure to bring with it a new battle for privacy rights.