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Invasion of the Body Scanners
The concept of "stimulus" may soon take on new connotations in the days ahead. The federal government is poised to emplace full-body scanners at airports across the nation

Invasion of the Body Scanners

The concept of "stimulus" may soon take on new connotations in the days ahead. The federal government is poised to emplace full-body scanners at airports across the nation

The concept of “stimulus” may soon take on new connotations in the days ahead. The federal government is poised to emplace full-body scanners at airports across the nation, capable of peering under a person’s garments. As noted by a former Cabinet member, this new technology “will give us the ability to see what someone has concealed underneath their clothing.” The prurient implications of this startling revelation are obvious, and one can only marvel at the full cultural import of widely available “x-ray vision” technology being deployed. Indeed, for those who remember the old X-ray Specs advertised on the back of comic books to see through women’s clothes, it is apparently a longstanding boyhood fantasy now set to become national policy. This is essentially a form of high-tech voyeurism masking as security, and it portends more such incursions into liberty and privacy. How did it come to this, and so suddenly at that?

Contracting for Success

At the outset, someone is profiting from these scanners. In recent years, the company Rapiscan (a wholly-owned subsidiary of OSI Systems, Inc., which focuses on “healthcare, security, and defense”) has made quite a name for itself. In January 2007, an article documenting its rising profile noted that “Rapiscan’s presence on Capitol Hill pays off,” with the company having opened a new Washington office and hiring a number of outside lobbyists. As this piece details:

“The results have been apparent. Last year the company did $17 million to $20 million in contracts. Over the past six months, the company has had $40 million in sales to the US government, compared with $8 million in 2004. ‘We plan to dramatically expand in the next few years well above the multimillion-dollar [mark],’ says Peter Kant, vice president of government affairs for Rapiscan…. Rapiscan also decided last year to join the political money game in a more coordinated effort, by creating a political action committee. Kant says he expects the PAC to raise $50,000 to $75,000 a year and donate equally to both parties. Previously, about 60 percent of the political donations from the firm’s executives went to Republicans…. How Rapiscan and other homeland-security companies will fare in the new political climate is still unclear. Lawmakers are expected to increase oversight and investigation of homeland-security issues such as government contracts.”

Rapiscan is a global security company that has systems being utilized, according to its web site, “at airports, government and corporate buildings, correctional and prison facilities, postal facilities, military zones, sea ports and border crossings.” Their products are deployed in locations including Pakistan (where mobile units are used in combat zones) and airports around the world. As reported on CNN, Rapiscan received $25.4 million from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) by way of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (i.e., the Stimulus Bill), to produce 150 new full-body scanners to be used at airports across the United States. Peter Kant, a vice president at Rapiscan, said that the government has given the TSA the green light to spend up to $173 million on new scanners, which could lead to the emplacement of hundreds of such devices in the near future. Interestingly, the $25.4 million tendered to Rapiscan for the first 150 scanners was formally awarded in September 2009, well ahead of the Christmas Day bombing attempt that has set off the recent flurry of scanner demands. According to, Rapiscan also received $2.9 million in stimulus monies in May 2009. The total number of jobs created by these millions in stimulus funds is estimated at 40.

In addition to the stimulus money recently administered, the US Army just announced an award of a no-bid contract to Rapiscan for 12 scanners to be used at military bases in Iraq and Kuwait. Previously, in December 2009, Rapiscan received a $5 million contract from NATO to provide screening devices for use in Afghanistan, as noted by “The award by NATO is the latest in a number of recent awards to Rapiscan Systems for integrated security systems that combine cargo, vehicle and personnel screening. Within the past twelve months, Rapiscan has also received contracts from the US government, UK Customs, the European Union and multiple customers in Asia and the Middle East.” This is, in short, a company with strong and steadily increasing ties to the US military and the international defense industry.

Conflicts and Shortcomings

Following the Christmas Day incident, a particularly vocal proponent of full-body scanners has been former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who, as reported by the Washington Post, has given “dozens of media interviews touting the need for the federal government to buy more full-body scanners for airports.” As it turns out, Chertoff has a direct stake in the issue:

“What he has made little mention of is that the Chertoff Group, his security consulting agency, includes a client [Rapiscan] that manufactures the machines. The relationship drew attention after Chertoff disclosed it on a CNN program…. Chertoff’s advocacy for the technology dates back to his time in the Bush administration. In 2005, Homeland Security ordered the government’s first batch of the scanners – five from California-based Rapiscan Systems.”

This new paradigm of high-tech security by way of scanning devices has become lucrative in recent years, and promises to become even more so in the near future. However, as Mother Jones Senior Washington correspondent James Ridgeway noted in his blog Unsilent Generation, “the TSA has a dismal record of enriching private corporations with failed technologies, and there are signs that the latest miracle device may just bring more of the same.” Citing an article from the Washington Examiner that details some of the major players in what is being called the “full-body scanner lobby,” and that warns of the dangers of a rising “Homeland Security-industrial complex,” Ridgeway observes that the new technologies are hardly foolproof:

“Known by their critics as ‘digital strip search’ machines, the devices use one of two technologies … to see through clothing, producing ghostly images of naked passengers. Yet critics say that these, too, are highly fallible, and are incapable of revealing explosives hidden in body cavities – an age-old method for smuggling contraband. If that’s the case, a terrorist could hide the entire bomb works within his or her body, and breeze through the virtual strip search undetected. Yesterday, the London Independent reported on ‘authoritative claims that officials at the [UK] Department for Transport and the Home Office have already tested the scanners and were not persuaded that they would work comprehensively against terrorist threats to aviation.’ A British defense research firm reportedly found the machines unreliable in detecting ‘low-density’ materials like plastics, chemicals, and liquids – precisely what the underwear bomber had stuffed in his briefs.”

Still, despite these noted limitations, cheerleaders such as Chertoff continue to unabashedly assert that incidents of the sort that occurred on Christmas Day – which has fanned the flames of public fear and ushered in calls for the widespread use of full-body scans – could have been averted, thus providing “a very vivid lesson in the value of that machinery.” Even more disconcerting is the statement of Rapiscan Vice President Peter Kant, who told CNN that this technology could be effective in detecting explosives such as those that were allegedly hidden in the underwear of the Christmas Day bomber. “If Rapiscan’s scanners had been in place, according to Kant, the incident could have been averted. ‘We do believe, from what we know from published reports, that we would have detected it,’ he said.” Considering that we are poised to fundamentally alter the balance of privacy in America (yet again) based on the fear-inducing qualities of the recent botched bombing attempt, it would seem that something more than a “belief” based merely on “published reports” is warranted under the circumstances.

Is the Technology Safe?

Beyond the lack of guaranteed functionality, a number of additional critiques have appeared questioning the untested nature of these technologies and whether they are in fact safe for widespread use. As an article from NaturalNews (recently reprinted by Truthout) observed:

“In researching the biological effects of the millimeter wave scanners used for whole body imaging at airports, NaturalNews has learned that the energy emitted by the machines may damage human DNA . Millimeter wave machines represent one of two primary technologies currently being used for the ‘digital strip searches’ being conducted at airports around the world. ‘The Transportation Security Administration utilizes two technologies to capture naked images of air travelers – backscatter x-ray technology and millimeter wave technology,’ reports the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a non-profit currently suing the US government to stop these electronic strip searches. In order to generate the nude image of the human body, these machines emit terahertz photons – high-frequency energy ‘particles’ that can pass through clothing and body tissue. The manufacturers of such machines claim they are perfectly safe and present no health risks, but a study conducted by Boian S. Alexandrov (and colleagues) at the Center for Nonlinear Studies at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico showed that these terahertz waves could ‘unzip double-stranded DNA, creating bubbles in the double strand that could significantly interfere with processes such as gene expression and DNA replication.'”

The Los Alamos study, which can be found in an online physics journal and is further analyzed in MIT’s Technology Review (TR), opens the door for more in-depth investigations of this technology that is about to become pervasive, since, as TR noted, “a new generation of cameras are set to appear that not only record terahertz waves but also bombard us with them. And if our exposure is set to increase, the question that urgently needs answering is what level of terahertz exposure is safe.” And yet, as NaturalNews indicated, “no such long-term safety testing has ever been conducted by a third party. There have been no clinical trials indicating that multiple exposures to such terahertz waves, accumulated over a long period of time, are safe for humans.” Given what we already know about the effects of radiation, as well as the initial report from Los Alamos, this would seem at a minimum to be a circumstance requiring greater study before mass deployment. It is more likely, however, that these untested devices will be in place long before adequate testing is done, suggesting that any such safety analysis will simply be undertaken as the devices are being used on human subjects at airports across the US and around the world.

Private Matters

And then there are the obvious matters of privacy and dignity. One need not be a constitutional scholar or privacy-rights advocate to appreciate the implications of conducting such invasive de facto “strip searches” on a widespread scale. While there may be humor to be found in this situation – my contribution is “Bon Voyeur and Have a Nice Strip” – the import of intruding on personal privacy and conducting warrantless full-body searches is potentially staggering. Moreover, the capacity of modern technology to record and/or disseminate such images serves to further complicate the use and ethicality of body scanners, as noted in a recent CNN report:

“A privacy group says the Transportation Security Administration is misleading the public with claims that full-body scanners at airports cannot store or send their graphic images. The TSA specified in 2008 documents that the machines must have image storage and sending abilities, the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said. In the documents, obtained by the privacy group and provided to CNN, the TSA specifies that the body scanners it purchases must have the ability to store and send images when in ‘test mode.’ That requirement leaves open the possibility [that] the machines – which can see beneath people’s clothing – can be abused by TSA insiders and hacked by outsiders, said EPIC Executive Director Marc Rotenberg…. The written requirements also appear to contradict numerous assurances the TSA has given the public about the machines’ privacy protections.”

As a subsequent report in The Raw Story indicated, the TSA’s assertions of privacy protection are unpersuasive and potentially misleading:

“On its website, the TSA explains that ‘this state-of-the-art technology cannot store, print, transmit or save the image. In fact, all machines are delivered to airports with these functions disabled.’ The last part of the quote here is key – the machines will be delivered with those functions disabled, not without those functions at all. The TSA ‘s procurement guidelines (PDF) for the body scanners state that the machines will have two modes, a ‘test mode’ and a ‘screening mode.’ The machines will not be able to store and transmit images when in ‘screening mode,’ but will be able to do so in ‘test mode.’ ‘When not being used for normal screening operations, the capability to capture images of non-passengers for training and evaluation purposes is needed,’ the TSA document states. It was not immediately clear from those documents how easy it is to switch a machine from ‘screening mode’ to ‘test mode,’ or who would have the authority or ability to do so.”

The New York Times further noted that “others say that the technology is no security panacea, and that its use should be carefully controlled because of the risks to privacy, including the potential for its ghostly naked images to show up on the Internet.” Indeed, as Baltimore Sun columnist Susan Reimer intoned: “They say these full-body screening images – in which I am pretty sure we are naked – are immediately erased, but I don’t believe them for a minute. Either somebody is keeping them on the hard drive to protect himself in case some terrorist gets by on his watch, or some enterprising guy is going to be selling Britney Spears’ body scan to TMZ for a hundred thousand bucks. I mean this is America, land of the irrepressible entrepreneurial spirit.” Absent clear and enforceable limitations, it seems likely that such scenarios will ensue.

Due to these privacy concerns, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) introduced an amendment blocking the use of full-body scanners as the main way of screening passengers who don’t fit risk profiles, and, furthermore, creating penalties for government employees who copy or share body-scan images. The House of Representatives passed the amendment in June 2009, but the Senate has yet to take it up. Still, despite the myriad concerns and unresolved issues of safety and privacy, recent events have fueled the drive by the TSA to emplace this technology. As the Wall Street Journal concluded, “political pressure on the agency since the alleged failed plot is likely to push officials to move fast.” Disturbingly, and perhaps due to the effectiveness of media saturation and the impetus of fear, recent polling suggested that Americans support the new technologies:

“Almost three quarters of the American public are in favor of full body x-ray scanners at airports, according to the findings of a new CBS News poll conducted in the wake of the failed Christmas Day bombing attempt on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit . Of those questioned, 74 percent said airports should use the controversial machines because they provide a detailed check for hidden weapons and explosives and reduce the need for physical searches. Just 20 percent said the machines should not be used because they see through a passenger’s clothing and thus constitute an invasion of privacy.”

Despite being known as a fairly Puritanical people in many respects – at least in terms of what constitutes “public decency” and the like – it seems that Americans perhaps are more permissive in their sense of decorum than we have been led to believe. Is it still voyeurism when the subject willingly desires to be watched? Must security and privacy exist in tension, or can they be fruitfully reconciled? Is constant surveillance becoming the baseline of our lives, and if so, who is watching the watchers? With the proliferation of public cameras, digital recorders, webcams, cellphone cameras and, now, terahertz scanners, we will be confronted with the implications of these technologies for the foreseeable future. The fact that our collective fears seem to be the leading edge of the debate doesn’t bode particularly well for reasoned decision-making and the eventual utilization of new technologies for emancipation rather than subjugation.

And in the End …

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 – make it almost impossible to have confidence in a sound and sober resolution. Moreover, the primary players behind the use of these technologies are imbricated within the workings of a growing military-industrial complex that continues to pervade more aspects of our lives. This watershed moment in the public dialogue about security and privacy is framed by an increasing militarization of everyday life in America, as indicated by a recollection of the loci in which companies like Rapiscan operate – namely, “at airports, government and corporate buildings, correctional and prison facilities, postal facilities, military zones, sea ports and border crossings.” This list could easily expand to include schools, hospitals, malls, arenas, banks, stores, and more. Now is the moment to rein it in while we still have a window of self-determination in which to do so.