A TSA Scanner in Every Neighborhood


The American people are outraged over the TSA’s new guidelines for airport security. Commentators have jokingly summarized travelers’ options as: porn machine or groping? However, the same body-baring technology may be rolling around their neighborhoods at this time, covertly scanning them on the sidewalks or within the sanctuary of their homes, all without a warrant.

Forbes reported in August about Z Backscatter Vans (ZBVs), vehicles that look like normal vans but are equipped with backscatter X-ray scanners attached. They can scan a vehicle in 15 seconds and X-ray anything within a 1,500 foot radius. A Massachusetts-based company has sold more than 500 of these vehicles to a variety of domestic, foreign, and international governments; law enforcement agencies; and private individuals. The use of these vans is unreported, largely unregulated, and all-but-impossible for innocent victims to detect.

American Science & Engineering (AS&E) has attempted to distinguish between ZBVs and the pornographic images produced by airport scanners, saying images produced by the vans are less revealing. But the company’s vice president of marketing, Joe Reiss, admitted the beams from these roving X-ray machines “to a large degree will penetrate clothing.” They can also see through “lightly constructed” buildings. Although TSA officials pretend their airport scanners do not save images, Reiss makes no pretense about the backscatter vans. “Sometimes customers need to save images for evidentiary reasons,” Reiss stated. “We do what our customers need.”

The idea of roving X-ray machines peeping through neighborhoods would be mildly less disturbing if we had a greater idea of who their customers were. They are apparently available to anyone who can pay the $729,000 price tag.

AS&E states the Department of Defense has purchased most of the units to scan for bombs in Afghanistan and Iraq. Others have been sold to U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the TSA. Other clients include unnamed national, international, or local law enforcement officials. (The NYPD acknowledges it does “utilize this technology” but declines to state when it is used “due to confidentiality concerns.”)

Other AS&E clients are more…vague. Records indicate sales to an “international government agency,” a “new African customer,” a “European Union (EU) and an Asia Pacific (APAC) client,” and a “Middle Eastern customer.”

Reports indicate government authorities are using the technology on a wide range of innocents. Arizona State University physics professor Peter Rez said one of his students told him about using a ZBV van at the United Nations in Turtle Bay. “It was a secondary screening mechanism for trucks going into a loading dock, but it was on a public street, and they were just scanning people and nobody was being told this was going on.”

Health concerns are also a factor. According to the U.S. military, these vans emit 0.01 millirems of radiation per exposure. However, if a pregnant woman with a young child unwittingly stood by a ZBV, they could be exposed to an impermissibly high level of radiation.

Since ZBVs are all-but undetectable, it will be nearly impossible for citizens to know when governments (or private citizens) are violating their liberties or endangering their health. By definition, these vans can, and apparently do, scan large numbers of people beside those for whom law enforcement have a warrant.

One of the young, outspoken conservative voices in the House of Representatives has raised his voice about this infringement of liberties. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said: “In a hostage situation you want to be able to peer into the house – I buy that. But in the hands of a private individual? That scares the living daylights out of me.”

There again, should Americans should breathe easier knowing the U.S. government – or foreign governments, foreign intelligence agencies, or the United Nations – may have a van irradiating the cul-de-sac and taking nude photos of themselves, their children, and their mothers? That government employees may be storing those images in perpetuity?

This author suggested in August that Darrell Issa should investigate the warrantless use of backscatter X-rays on American streets as a possible violation of the Fourth Amendment. So far, Ron Paul has introduced the American Traveler Dignity Act, which would allow citizens to prosecute airport scanners. He currently has no fewer than two cosponsors.

That must be the beginning of a roll-back of this administration’s intrusion into our private lives. The he DHS (Department of Hopeless Seculation) has issued a report declaring those who hold to what Janet Napolitano defines as a “rightwing extremist ideology are the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States.” That report makes these groups targets for government surveillance. Planned Parenthood is instructing the FBI on how to spy on pro-lifers. Investigators may legally attach a GPS to your vehicle to track you remotely. And Obama’s stimulus spent $50,000 to put microchips in recycling bins in Dayton, Ohio.

ZBVs may have a role to play in our national security. A heroic conservative legislator should craft guidelines to assure our constitutional liberties are not violated in the process.