Van-Mounted Body Scanners – Legal or Not, They’re Here

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Full-body scanners are no longer limited to airport terminals or other buildings. Van-mounted body scanners are available for sale to US law enforcement agencies thanks to companies like American Science & Engineering of Billerica, MA.

A report by a Forbes blogger noted that American Science & Engineering has sold over 500 Z Backscatter Vans to the US military as well as law enforcement agencies. The US military is currently the largest user of the Z Backscatter vans, checking for car bombs and other threats in war zones.

AS&E won’t reveal which US law enforcement groups have bought the van-mounted body scanners. Civil libertarians are naturally concerned about them due to how easily they can be used to scan cars and houses as well as people’s clothing.

Jay Stanley of the ACLU said the Z Backscatter vans would represent “a major violation of the Constitution” if they were used on public streets. “In fact,” he opined, “it’s hard to believe any counsel at any government agency would sign off on allowing these vans to be used in that way.”

Stanley suspects that Customs and Border Protection are one of the unnamed customers. Van-mounted body scanners would come in very handy to check cars for contraband or illegal immigrants. That application of the technology would clearly be legal.

While American Science & Engineering spokesperson Joe Reiss claims their van-mounted body scanners such as the Z Backscatter aren’t as detailed as airport scanners and can’t take detailed pictures of someone’s face, that’s hardly cause to think everything’s fine with them. And the reasons may not just be privacy-based.

The Z Backscatter van, as with other body scanners, uses X-rays. X-ray exposure is something safe at low levels, but cumulative exposure can cause issues down the line. It’s unlikely, but there’s a chance someone exposed to a van-mounted body scanner in action could receive a dose that would push them closer to cancer or other cell damage-based issues.

The increasing tendency of US law enforcement to conduct searches that were previously considered unconstitutional also could make Stanley sound like an optimist. The Z Backscatter van’s existence may be new, but it deserves careful observation. If it’s used in currently illegal ways, the courts may decide the van-mounted body scanners are legal to use anywhere with “probable cause.” And that alone is not a future most people would truly want if they thought about it.

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