DHS denies plans for expanded use of body scanners

Efforts to explore wider use of technology have ended, DHS official says

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) today denied it is planning to expand the use of whole-body scanning technologies to rail and bus transit facilities or for pedestrian surveillance.

The issue surfaced earlier this week after the Electronic Privacy Information Center obtained a set of documents from the DHS pertaining to its use of static and mobile body scanning technologies.

The documents, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, show that the DHS has spent millions of dollars in recent years testing the use of whole-body scans in mass transit environments such as rail and bus stations and at special event facilities. The documents also show that the agency looked into the viability of using so-called Z Backscatter vans (ZBV) in conjunction with video cameras for pedestrian surveillance purposes.

EPIC argued that the use of such technologies would pose serious privacy risks and violate Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search. The non-profit has also raised concerns about the radiation risks posed by such scanners.

However, officials from the DHS and from the Transportation Security Administration today downplayed the significance of the documents.

In an e-mailed statement, Bobby Whithome, assistant press secretary of the DHS, said the technologies discussed in the documents were "outdated" and have been superseded by newer technology. He did not comment on whether the DHS or the TSA is currently using those newer technologies for anything other than passenger screening at U.S. airports.

A DHS official who declined to be identified, confirmed that none of the projects included in the documents released to EPIC are active. "All have been terminated," the official said. "The objective of the projects was to assess the technology.... With the exception of the Rail Security Pilot Program (download PDF), which conducted limited field testing in public locations in 2006, testing for all of these projects was conducted in labs, using volunteers."

The DHS official also added that Z backscatter vans were not used in any pilot project. The vehicles are designed to look for "anomalies" in vehicles -- not to scan humans, he said.

In e-mailed comments to Computerworld, a TSA spokeswoman said the agency has not tested the use of whole-body scanners, or advanced imaging technologies, outside of U.S. airport environments. Nor does the agency have any plans to do so, she added.

"The current advanced imaging technology units in airports provide consistent throughput and are an effective security tool," Whithome from the DHS said. He stressed that the body-scanners in use at airports cannot store, save, transmit or print images, thereby reducing the privacy risks posed by their use.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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