DHS scanning people everywhere, even without their knowledge

Two weeks ago I noticed a story by Declan McCullagh at CNET, a technology publication. The title was “DHS’s x-ray scanners could be cancer risk to border crossers.”

It turns out, though, that not only border crossers are at risk. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has obtained a heavily redacted 63-page document that shows that the Department of Homeland Security has been scanning people, sometimes through their cars, and sometimes without their knowledge, at border crossings, on commuter ferries, and on the streets of New York.

The scanners DHS is using are the so-called backscatter — or x-ray — scanners, which emit radiation.

And according to this just-published account at ProPublica, the level of that radiation is even higher than that used by TSA airport scanners, the safety of which has still not been determined.

John Sedat, Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of California at San Francisco, told CNET:

Society will pay a huge price in cancer because of this.

Regardless of whether you care about the radiation emitted by scanners, the question still remains as to why people, going about their everyday business, are being scanned at all.

Scanners are already in use at the border checkpoint in San Ysidro, California, at prisons all over the country, where prisoners have no say on what’s being done to them, and they’re even being proposed for the Super Bowl in Indianapolis.

From the ProPublica article:

While the Transportation Security Administration hasn’t bought them, it tested them at a Delaware ferry crossing in 2004 and at a Long Island ferry crossing in 2009, spokesman Greg Soule said. In the first test, passengers weren’t in the vehicles. But in the second test, passengers remained in the vehicles but could opt out, he said. Another TSA test in 2009 was conducted in northern New Jersey on empty commuter train cars in a rail yard.

The X-ray vans have also shown up on American streets. In 2010, Homeland Security officials conducted an exercise scanning tractor-trailers on Interstate 20. And the New York Police Department uses the vans.

The NYPD has declined to release details about the use of the machines.

It appears we’ve been getting zapped for years:

ABC News reporters Richard Esposito and Ted Gerstein provide one of the few accounts of the backscatter van in a book they wrote chronicling a year inside NYPD’s bomb squad. Describing the security ahead of President Bush’s motorcade to the 2004 Republican convention, they wrote that every vehicle entering the street in front of the hotel was ordered to drive between two unmarked white vans, which X-rayed each vehicle for bombs.

Such covert use of radiation, if done without informed consent, would violate the industry standard.

Well, that horse is out of the barn. But what is “informed consent” in such circumstances anyway? If you’re driving a delivery truck and have to keep to a tight schedule, how likely are you to object to being scanned? How sympathetic do you think your employer would be? Sounds like extortion to me. Sort of like what already happens at the airport.

About the level of radiation emitted, the article goes on:

But even if a violation were discovered, there is little the FDA can do because the standard is voluntary and not a federal regulation.

And here’s that convenient lack of accountability we’ve all come to know and love:

The FDA, which said it doesn’t regulate the “use” of security scanners emitting radiation, referred questions to New York State, which also said it does not regulate the scanners and referred questions to the New York City Department of Health, which also said it does not regulate the devices.

DHS is set to buy 75 more scanners as we speak.

An important tidbit that often goes unmentioned in discussions in Congress, and in the general public, is that there’s money to be made in the “security” business — big money.

A few corporations are getting rich off these scanners. Rapiscan, L-3, American Science and Engineering — all manufacture scanners or other surveillance equipment, and all have government contracts. One company, Smiths, has seen almost a five-fold increase in profits. On Capitol Hill, lobbying by “security” companies is hot and heavy, and is worth billions of dollars. American Science and Engineering boasts that its roving x-ray van “is now the largest selling cargo and vehicle inspection system ever.”

And as ever, fraud is profitable, too:

The Pentagon paid more than $1.1 trillion during the past decade to 37 contractors that had defrauded the Department of Defense, according to a report released in October. Another $255 million went to 54 defense contractors convicted of hard-core criminal fraud in the same period.

As you can see from this public relations excerpt, corporate America sounds positively gleeful that “terror” is in the air:

Homeland security (HLS) is a substantial expanding market that offers a vast number of opportunities for private sector entities. Despite sharp budget cuts and fiscal austerity measures implemented across advanced economies, Visiongain calculates that the value of the HLS industry reached as much as US$194.3bn in 2011.

Visiongain’s latest report, The Homeland Security Market 2011-2021 expects this growth to continue over the next 10 years as governments in the West largely insulate HLS expenditure from cuts and emerging markets pour unprecedented funds into defensive measures against threats such as terrorism, cyber attack, natural disasters, and piracy.

Since the paradigm shift in the HLS sector triggered by the September 11 2001 attacks, expenditure in the internal security industry has proven to be remarkably resilient. Despite the killing of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in May 2011, governments are unlikely to feel sufficiently comfortable to reduce HLS spending by any meaningful degree. Visiongain’s The Homeland Security Market 2011-2021 report states that, although counter-terror activity remains a key element of the market, the HLS sector has expanded far beyond anti-terrorism spending and is now underpinned by a strong nexus of factors. 

Apparently we are to applaud the fact that “security” is creeping everywhere.

Oh, well. As the saying goes, take my civil liberties; I wasn’t using them anyway.

(Photo: Customs and Border Protection, i.e., your tax dollars)