NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Scanner Vans Allow Drive-By Snooping

September 22, 2010

Privacy-conscious travelers may cringe to think of the full-body scanners finding their way into dozens of airport checkpoints around the country.  Most probably aren't aware that the same technology, capable of seeing through walls and clothes, has also been rolling out on U.S. streets, says Forbes Magazine.

American Science & Engineering has sold U.S. and foreign government agencies more than 500 backscatter X-ray scanners mounted in vans that can be driven past neighboring vehicles or cargo containers to snoop into their contents.  And while the biggest buyer of the machines over the last seven years has been the Department of Defense for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the company says law enforcement agencies have also been using them domestically, deploying the roving scanners to search for vehicle-based roadside bombs in American cities, says Forbes.

  • The Z Backscatter Vans, or ZBVs, as the company calls them, send a narrow stream of X-rays off and through nearby objects and read which ones bounce back.
  • Absorbed rays indicate dense material such as steel.  Scattered rays show less-dense objects that can include explosives, drugs or human bodies.
  • That capability has made "scan vans" powerful tools for security, law enforcement and border control.

Good news, perhaps, for shareholders -- and a nightmare for privacy advocates.  "It's no surprise that governments and vendors are very enthusiastic about [the vans]," says Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.  "But from a privacy perspective it's one of the most intrusive technologies conceivable."

Source: Andy Greenberg, "Scanner Vans Allow Drive-By Snooping," USA Today, September 17, 2010.

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