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Privacy Advocates Sue Department of Homeland Security Over Full-Body Scanners

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Photo by Quinn Dombrowski on Flickr

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski on Flickr

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has sued the Department of Homeland Security over full-body scanners currently being used in some United States airports. The scans are done by machines that use x-ray or radio frequency and produce somewhat blurred images of a person’s naked body; they are used to find hidden contraband, although some question their ability to detect objects in body cavities.

In its lawsuit, the EPIC contends that the use of such devices violates the Privacy Act, the Administrative Procedure Act, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the Fourth Amendment as it amounts to a “digital strip search” without any reasonable suspicion that random passengers have done anything wrong.

The lawsuit was announced nearly concurrently with an admission by the U.S. Marshals Service that it had saved more than 35,000 images taken at a Florida courthouse; this is despite the fact that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), part of the Department of Homeland Security, has always insisted that the photos are not stored. The TSA has maintained that although the machines have the ability to store images, that feature is only used in the testing phases and not enabled in airports.

Proponents of the scanners note several other precautions to ensure passenger privacy, including the fact that the agent escorting the passenger never sees the image and the agent reviewing the image never sees the passenger. Moreover, passengers can elect to undergo a pat-down and metal detector search instead.

Marc Rotenberg, the Director of the EPIC, has plainly stated, “We think the privacy safeguards are mostly fiction.”

The TSA has says that it continues to explore other options to increase privacy protection, but has not commented on the lawsuit specifically. One of those potential replacements for the current full-body scanner, according to The Boston Globe, is alternative software that would produce a “paper-doll-like figure instead of an actual image of a passenger’s body — and transmit images only when a threat is detected.”

Rotenberg counters, however, that this still would create privacy concerns as there would always be an image of a person’s naked body in the machine itself.

The EPIC isn’t alone in its fight against the scanners, either. The Center for Study of Responsive Law, led by Ralph Nader, has also expressed privacy issues, and scientists from the University of California of San Francisco have raised concerns over the level of radiation used by the machines, which they called “dangerously high.”

What do you think about the use of full-body scanners?

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August 5th, 2010 at 2:25 pm

Posted in Fourth Amendment,Legal News,Privacy

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