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Technology

Body Scanners Taking to the Streets

Mobile scanning technology similar to airport scanners is on tap to check vehicles -- and possibly people, too -- for explosives and other contraband.

More body scanners at U.S. and foreign airports are just the beginning. Mobile scanning devices -- already in use overseas -- will soon be on the nation’s streets and highways, hidden in ordinary-looking delivery vans.

They’ll be able to peer through vehicles, scanning their contents. Eventually, they may also be used to scan suspicious-looking pedestrians -- all to the chagrin of privacy advocates who are sure to go to court to stop the vans’ implementation.

Use of the vans, called Z Backscatter Vans by their manufacturer, American Science and Engineering Inc. of Billerica, Mass., “is profoundly disturbing and could not pass constitutional muster,” says Ginger McCall, an attorney with the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

EPIC has already filed a lawsuit challenging the full body scanners that are proliferating in airports. The suit will be heard in January in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The organization is also mulling a lawsuit concerning backscatter vans, but wants to first learn more details from the Department of Homeland Security about its plans to test and employ the vans for nonairport uses. So far, DHS hasn’t responded to EPIC’s request for information under the Freedom of Information Act.

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Besides DHS, including its Customs and Border Protection agency, backscatter vans have been ordered by the Department of Defense, the United Kingdom’s border agency, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and customs agencies in Abu Dhabi, Hong Kong and Bulgaria, which uses them primarily to nab black market smugglers.

Altogether, American Science and Engineering, which touts the vans as “the number one-selling nonintrusive mobile inspections system on the market," says it has received more than 500 orders.

Based on patented technology originally developed for NASA, backscatter X-ray machines produce photo-like images of the contents of a truck or car for the detection of plastic or liquid explosives, narcotics, plastic weapons, drugs, stowaways and alcohol. The vans can generate scans of vehicles that are five feet away or closer. The images are monitored by operators riding in the vans.