Thursday, August 5, 2010

Government Body Scanners Can Store, Transfer Images

A few weeks ago I wrote about the lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security, seeking an emergency stay of the body scanner program. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), who filed the suit, has been leading the charge against the use of these whole body imaging machines in US airports (i.e. "digital strip search").

These scanners essentially see through clothing, producing images of digitally naked passengers. Well, I've got some breaking news on this case I want to discuss today. Documents obtained by EPIC show that the body scanners being used at federal courthouses can store and record the images of those scanned with the devices.

As part of a settlement of its Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the U.S. Marshals Service, EPIC obtained more than 100 images of undressed individuals from the scanning devices used at federal courthouses

EPIC has filed two other lawsuits against the Department of Homeland Security related to the use of body scanners. The first FOIA lawsuit is aimed at obtaining more information about the use of body scanners in U.S. airports, including 2,000 images it says DHS has refused to release. A second petition against DHS, filed last month, seeks to obtain an emergency stay against the use of the scanners in U.S. airports.

From the article in Tech Daily Dose, "EPIC said documents it has obtained from DHS show the machines used by the department's Transportation Security Administration at some U.S. airports also can record and store images from the body scanners even though they are slightly different from the scanners used at federal courts. When asked if TSA has stored any images from passengers, EPIC staff counsel Ginger McCall said TSA claims it has not stored such images, but EPIC believes that statement is false."

In a more comprehensive piece from CNET News entitled "Feds admit storing checkpoint body scan images", it leaves no doubt:

For the last few years, federal agencies have defended body scanning by insisting that all images will be discarded as soon as they're viewed. The Transportation Security Administration claimed last summer, for instance, that "scanned images cannot be stored or recorded."

Now it turns out that some police agencies are storing the controversial images after all. The U.S. Marshals Service admitted this week that it had surreptitiously saved tens of thousands of images recorded with a millimeter wave system at the security checkpoint of a single Florida courthouse.

This follows an earlier disclosure (PDF) by the TSA that it requires all airport body scanners it purchases to be able to store and transmit images for "testing, training, and evaluation purposes." The agency says, however, that those capabilities are not normally activated when the devices are installed at 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," EPIC executive director Marc Rotenberg told CNET. "We think it's significant."

William Bordley, an associate general counsel with the Marshals Service, acknowledged in the letter that "approximately 35,314 images...have been stored on the Brijot Gen2 machine" used in the Orlando, Fla. federal courthouse. In addition, Bordley wrote, a Millivision machine was tested in the Washington, D.C. federal courthouse but it was sent back to the manufacturer, which now apparently possesses the image database.


This trickle of disclosures about the true capabilities of body scanners--and how they're being used in practice--is probably what alarms privacy advocates more than anything else.

A 70-page document (PDF) showing the TSA's procurement specifications, classified as "sensitive security information," says that in some modes the scanner must "allow exporting of image data in real time" and provide a mechanism for "high-speed transfer of image data" over the network. (It also says that image filters will "protect the identity, modesty, and privacy of the passenger.")

"TSA is not being straightforward with the public about the capabilities of these devices," Rotenberg said. "This is the Department of Homeland Security subjecting every U.S. traveler to an intrusive search that can be recorded without any suspicion--I think it's outrageous." EPIC's lawsuit says that the TSA should have announced formal regulations, and argues that the body scanners violate the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits "unreasonable" searches.

This information DIRECTLY contradicts the repeated claims by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) that such images are not stored, nor can they be transferred.

As I wrote nearly a year ago in my article "The Politics of Fear and Whole Body Imaging", "Are we really to believe the government won't allow these devices to record any data when the easy "go to" excuse for doing so will be the need to gather and store evidence? What about the ability of some hacker in an airport lounge capturing the data using his wi-fi capable PC - and then filing it to a Flickr album, and then telling of its whereabouts on Twitter?"

These new revelations should add to what has been a growing consumer backlash against the machines. I should also note, early polling - and this should be no surprise when considering all the fear mongering that goes on in this country around terrorism and airports - indicated public support for these scanners in the range of 80%. Of course, that was before passengers started being more regularly subjected to them, and more information regarding the variety of threats they pose have come to light.

At the end of the day, if the flying public revolts against these scanners it will be monumentally more difficult to justify their exorbitant costs. That's why the global public revolt going on right now is hopeful, be it concerns regarding the sheer personal violation people feel to be viewed naked, to concerns over potential health "side effects", to the time time-consuming component, or to the simple fact that they don't really work and aren't needed.

In fact, let me post two comments that were made in response to my last post on this topic:

I flew out of Indianapolis last Friday. (Indy has had these scanners since before last Christmas.) I politely stated I'd rather not go through the body scanner, and was told I would have to "go through special screening." I thought the body scanners were OPTIONAL? So wouldn't I go through the NORMAL screening, and not "special" screening?

I went through the metal detector and was told to stand to the side and wait. The male screener asked for a female screener for a pat-down. From the other side of the machine, the female screener ROLLED HER EYES and said loudly "Oh boy." Her sarcasm was opaque.

The pat-down that followed ensured I wouldn't need my annual Pap Smear.

I am convinced the TSA would simply prefer we go through these untested, unregulated, unsafe machines for their own convenience. They are determined to make the other "screening options" so invasive that we might find the body scanner "safer" than being molested.

I will never step through one of those machines. Not EVER. There is nothing they have done to prove I can trust these machines medically, or them with my privacy. On the off hand, I don't find it optional to fly. My family is 2,000 miles away, and I have to move with military orders (husband is active duty). So what is my option? I MUST fly. It isn't a choice, and I'm not the only one who sees it that way.

And another women commented:

I am a young female who flew out of Heathrow yesterday, on a 45 minute flight to Newcaste upon Tyne. I was randomly (I say randomly,I saw the young male security guards pointing as they chose me) selected for the body scan. I have read all about these machines and had decided I would never go through one, but when I refused I was told I would not be able to travel.

I was visibly upset and did not want to do this scan, I feel it is a total invasion of my privacy. I am a businesswoman and travel regularly, but something about this invasive process really got to me. Well I had no option but to do the scan, but this morning I am still thinking about it and worrying that I will be subjected to this every time I fly. Privacy, health? It just all seems so over the top for the normal traveller like myself.

I don't think I can make the case better than these two, who experienced it for themselves. Now, I want to post a couple clips from a recent article about the lawsuit itself (to read the short article on the images found click here), and then, as I always do with this subject, I want to include a few more thoughts that I think need highlighting, particularly about fear versus reality.

The Boston Herald reports:

The suit says the program, run by the Transportation Security Administration, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, violates the Privacy Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.

The program also violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act
, the lawsuit says, referencing religious laws about modesty.

Court documents allege the scanners also violate the Fourth Amendment by having passengers undergo “a uniquely invasive search without any suspicion that particular individuals have engaged in wrongdoing.’’

... of the petitioners in the lawsuit is Bruce Schneier, a Minneapolis security technologist who said that while he was traveling through Logan Airport he was not told the full-body scan was optional. Nor did he see any signs indicating he could have a pat-down.

Ralph Nader’s Center for Study of Responsive Law has also weighed in on the full-body scanners, raising questions about privacy and safety.

And a group of University of California San Francisco scientists wrote to President Obama’s science adviser in April, stating that the dose of radiation from the X-ray scanners may be “dangerously high.’’

The scanner X-ray emits the same amount of radiation that a passenger receives in two minutes of flight, according to the TSA, but the scientists say this is misleading because the scanner X-rays are not distributed throughout the whole body, but are directed at just the skin and the underlying tissue.

I think what is starting to take shape is that there are in fact a myriad of reasons to oppose the widespread use of these scanners, from the obvious, privacy, to the less so, they won't make us any safer.

In fact, if you define the word "safe" as also including the concept of "safe" from government intrusiveness and corporate profiteering off fear peddling, than I would argue these machines make us less safe, not more.

Consider also the question regarding the actual need for these machines, and the ACTUAL threat posed by terrorists to passengers:

The likelihood that I'll get hit by lightning in one year is 500,000 to 1 while the odds I'll be killed by a terrorist on a plane if I flew constantly over 10 years is 10 million to 1. Does this laughably minuscule risk warrant yet another civil liberties encroachment? Does this irrational fear of being blown up in a plane really warrant supporting wars on countries that did nothing to us, or in this case, wasting HUGE amounts of money on ineffectual security systems?

The bottom line is a rather stark one: Is the loss of freedom, privacy, and quality of life a worthwhile trade-off for unproven protections from a terrorist threat that has a 1 in 10 million chance of killing someone over a ten year time period?

Does this "fear" warrant increasing the already long list of airline passenger indignities? Isn't suffering through long lines while being shoeless, beltless, waterless, and nail clipper-less enough? Now we've got to be digitally strip searched too?

Could all this hype be just another way to sell more security technologies, soften us up for future wars, increased spending on the military, and the evisceration of our civil liberties? I think, at least to an extent, the answer is yes.

For these reasons and more, privacy advocates continue to argue for increased oversight, full disclosure for air travelers, and legal language to protect passengers and keep the TSA from changing policy down the road. Again, what's to stop the TSA from using clearer images or different technology later?

As always, I'll be back with more on this case as it develops.

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