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Body-Scanners in Courthouses Have Stored Thousands of Rather Personal Images

By Joseph Calamia
Aug 6, 2010 12:31 AMNov 20, 2019 5:19 AM


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It's official: a full-body security scanner can theoretically store your blurry nude picture. After a Freedom of Information Act request from the advocacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center, the U.S. Marshals Service released 100 of 35,314 stored images taken by a scanner at an Orlando, Florida, courthouse. Though airport security scanners use similar radio wave technology to get a hazy peek under your clothes, whether these scanners can store your image still seems unclear. Publications such as CNET question if these images mean a change in federal officials' statement that the scanners cannot store images:

For the last few years, federal agencies have defended body scanning by insisting that all images will be discarded as soon as they're viewed. The Transportation Security Administration claimed last summer, for instance, that "scanned images cannot be stored or recorded." [CNET]

The Transportation Security Administration responds on their blog that they stick by that original statement. Though the recently released images prove that the Marshal Service stores scanned images, the Marshal Service is not the TSA. The first falls under the Department of Justice, the second under the Department of Homeland Security.

As we’ve stated from the beginning, TSA has not, will not and the machines cannot store images of passengers at airports. The equipment sent by the manufacturer to airports cannot store, transmit or print images and operators at airports do not have the capability to activate any such function. [TSA]

Part of the reason for the now viral story is that the scanner images appearance comes just after a late-July announcement that the TSA will deploy additional "advanced imagining technology" at 28 airports.

The revelation comes at a tense time. Two weeks ago, when Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said such scanners would appear in every major airport, privacy advocates such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington D.C. filed a lawsuit to stop the device rollout. [MSNBC.com]

The scanners employ a millimeter wave radiometer which uses radio frequency waves to image visitors. In a letter published on the Electronic Privacy Information Center site, the acting administrator of the TSA responds to the chairman of Homeland Security: it seems that though the machines at airports are manufactured with the capability to store images, but that capability is used in "testing mode" only--and not at airports. The letter also says that security officers cannot put the machines into this storage mode. Still, the Center filed a lawsuit last month to suspend the deployment of body scanners at US airports, saying that the scanning program violates the Privacy Act, Administrative Procedure Act, Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the Fourth Amendment. The TSA is looking to modify the machines further to protect passengers' privacy, for example by replacing the somewhat realistic nude image with a "paper-doll-like figure," The Boston Globereports, but the Center isn't satisfied.

This will not solve the privacy issues, said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, because the images of travelers’ naked bodies are still being captured by the machine. “We think the privacy safeguards are mostly fiction,’’ said Rotenberg, adding that a congressional investigation is underway to review the scanners. [Boston Globe]

Related content: 80beats: TSA Threatens Bloggers Who Published Security Info, Then Backs Off 80beats: Editing Goof Puts TSA Airport Screening Secrets on the Web 80beats: Are Digital Strip Searchers Coming Soon to Every Airport Near You? 80beats: Computer Glitch Delays Airline Flights Around the Country DISCOVER: A Wing and a Prayer: The U.S.’s Crumbling Air-Travel Infrastructure

Image: flickr / an opportunity for identity

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