X-ray machines now are mounted inside vans

A plain white van moving through traffic on a busy thoroughfare looks like a delivery vehicle, making a run to a local business.

It could be any plain white van in any American city.

But there are two men sitting in the back of the van operating X-ray machines. As their panel van moves in and out of traffic, the men use the X-ray machines to scan passing vehicles, peering behind the walls of the adjoining trucks to discover if the targets are carrying weapons, drugs or illegal immigrants.

This scenario isn’t from a spy movie, it’s happening every day in the United States.

The Department of Homeland Security, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Service and even local law enforcement agencies are buying and deploying mobile X-ray vans.

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Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told Congress in an April 2010 hearing that 30 of the vans were being deployed to the Mexican border.

Napolitano said the machines would be, “used in a mobile inspection capacity to identify anomalies in passenger vehicles – on the Southwest border … These machines greatly assist CBP officers in inspections.”

The military uses the machines in anti-terrorist operations in the Middle East and for base security in the United States. For the past three years, the Air Force has used the devices to scan vehicles that come to the gate of a stateside base.

A contract from the Department of Defense website shows that the United States Marine Corps had an $86 million contract in 2005 to purchase 52 of the vans. Delivery of the first part of the order was scheduled for 2006.

The new Z Backscatter X-ray vans can be used to detect car bombs, guns and other weapons and reports say that American Science and Engineering of Billerica, Mass., has sold about 500 of the vans.

The company website says that X-rays “interact with matter, they generally do one of three things: 1. They pass through the object. 2. They are absorbed by the object. 3. They are scattered from the object.”

X-ray technology works by having objects with a greater density block or absorb the rays. Objects with a lesser density don’t block or absorb the stronger x-rays.

The company website further reports that the Z Backscatter systems use electronically generated X-rays to look inside a target object.

This particular technology allows a portable X-ray machine to drive around in what some critics say is “a seemingly normal delivery van,” but be able to conduct X-ray imaging tests, as reported by the company website, on “suspect vehicles and objects while the ZBV van drives past.”

Although literature about the machines says they aren’t invasive, privacy advocates aren’t buying that explanation. One reason is that the machines can also X-ray through clothing.

Electronic Privacy Information Center spokesman Marc Rotenberg says that no matter what claims are made about the vans, the machines in the vans are going to be used outside of their normal settings.

“Those questions are always there with mobile scanners. The key distinction is that were backscatter X-rays would most likely be in places like airports, and people would recognize their use,” Rotenberg stated.

Listen to an interview with Rotenberg:

“But in mobile units, it’s actually a concealed type of surveillance because the mobile backscatter device is used from inside a van and that’s a very different type of implementation,” Rotenberg explained.

Rotenberg says the machines could be effective weapons against potential adversaries if there are legal safeguards.

“The key point is not so much about regulating technology, but about regulating police practices in the use of the new technology,” Rotenberg observed.

“Based on what the Supreme Court has said in other similar cases, I think there has to be some probable cause or warrant before people are scanned without suspicion and when images are provided of what people look like without their clothes,” Rotenberg said.

Rotenberg also believes there should be limits on where the machines are deployed.

“They’ve been used in airports; they’ve been used in prisons. I think that’s worth keeping in mind. They’re also used in federal court houses. This is a new, and in military zones at security checkpoints, but the use of mobile scanners, this is new,” Rotenberg observed.

Rotenberg claims that there should be a question of the machine’s accuracy if the machines are mobile.

Rotenberg says the public is largely unaware that this technology exists.

“I don’t think the public is aware that this technology exists. And I think it’s something that requires some debate as this technology is considered for broader deployment,” Rotenberg stated.

He also believes the lack of coverage is due to the technology’s rapid
developmental pace. However, he says his group EPIC is actively trying to make
sure the technology is properly used.

“We have a series of open government requests. We are trying to make known to the public how the devices operate and what the privacy and health risks are. We’ve also formally petitioned to have the program suspended pending a formal review,” Rotenberg explained.

Rotenberg adds that his organization believes the federal government should wait until there are sufficient legal safeguards in place before the vans and other machines are used.

American Science and Engineering Vice President of Marketing Joe Reiss didn’t
return any calls asking for comment.

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