Remember how privacy experts were concerned because new backscatter X-ray scanners could see through people's clothing at airport checkpoints? Forbes' Andy Greenberg reported this week that the intrusive-scanning industry has already moved on to much, much bigger things :
American Science & Engineering, a company based in Billerica, Massachusetts, 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 to see their contents, Joe Reiss, a vice president of marketing at the company told me in an interview. While the biggest buyer of AS&E’s machines over the last seven years has been the Department of Defense operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, Reiss says law enforcement agencies have also deployed the vans to search for vehicle-based bombs in the U.S.
The company says that while these images, like the airport ones, can penetrate clothing, the results are too low-resolution for people to be embarrassed about. Besides, the people operating the trucks are too busy taking inventory of the entire private contents of your car to spend time studying your genitals.
Are they lying about the resolution of the scans, the same way the Transportation Security Administration lied about the airport scanners' ability to record and transmit images ? It hardly seems worth worrying about, given that the entire premise of the vans is flagrantly, indisputably illegal .
The promotional video from American Science & Engineering shows the anonymous white vans cruising down American streets, scanning cars as they pass them. At one point, the scanner appears to be peering through the walls of some sort of prefab building or trailer.
Again, this is completely, categorically unconstitutional. The video—which is so guilelessly dystopian it feels like a hoax, like one of the
prescient TV commercials from Robocop
—touts the ability of the scanner vans to find explosives and other contraband. If American law-enforcement agencies are really interested in intercepting unlawful vehicle-borne threats, they should start by impounding the contents of their own vans.