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Ralph Nader and EPIC Take On Full-Body Airport Scanners

Privacy watchdog group EPIC and legendary consumer watchdog Ralph Nader claim the full-body scanners are easily hackable, store nude pictures for unknown periods of time, and don’t even catch terrorists. Worse: They run a version of Windows XP.

body scans

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Newly installed full-body scanners at American airports give Transportation Security Administration (TSA)
employees the ability to use powerful advanced imaging technology (AIT) to see the naked bodies and genitalia of travelers. Four hundred ninety-two full
body scanners are expected to be in use by December 2010 and an
additional 500 units will be shipped out in 2011.
The alternative is reportedly an embarrassing full-body search.

However, a new lawsuit by watchdog group Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) claims the body scanners are easily hackable, store
nude pictures for unknown periods of time, and don’t even catch
terrorists. But that’s not the worst news: the collective bargaining
agent organization for American Airlines pilots alleges the machines
pose a radiation risk.

EPIC has filed
a lawsuit
in the District of Columbia Court of Appeals urging the
court to suspend the AIT body scanner program. Well-known consumer
advocate (and 2000 election gadfly) Ralph Nader has also joined EPIC
in urging
Senate hearings on full body scanners at airports
. The federal
government’s brief in the lawsuit is due by December 15, 2010.

Full-body airport scanner. Image via Department of Homeland Security

Also named as a petitioner in EPIC’s
lawsuit is Nadhira al-Khalili, national legal counsel for the Council
on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). CAIR is one of the largest
Muslim organizations in the United States and has repeatedly
targeted
alleged discrimination against Muslim-American airplane
passengers in the past. The organization is mentioned several times
in EPIC’s filing.

But the interesting thing? According to
EPIC’s legal
papers
, the government is actively discouraging other airport
screening methods, saving images of naked travelers in databases,
exposing travelers to unhealthy amounts of radiation … and the
machines don’t even work. Here’s a list of the highlights of their court filing:

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  • Travelers are, in most cases, not
    told they can opt out of full body scanners: “The TSA does not, in
    practice, offer air travelers an alternative to the body scanner
    search. […] There is also the growing sense, confirmed by the
    Respondent TSA’s statements, that these pat-downs (alternate
    searches) have become particularly intrusive. Passengers perceive
    the pat-down to represent a retaliatory measure for those who do
    object to the body scanners.”

  • Detailed personal info, including
    the appearance of the naked body and genitalia, is viewable on the
    machines by guards and saved for an unknown duration of time:
    “Respondent has required that these devices have the ability to
    store, record, and transmit the images that are captured. […]
    Respondent has subjected millions of air travelers to suspicionless
    searches that target the most intimate areas of the human body. […]
    It has even disregarded a federal privacy law that explicitly
    prohibits the capture of naked images by federal officials where
    there is a reasonable expectation of privacy […] Privacy advocates
    have taken issue with the machines’ storage and transfer
    capabilities.”

  • The machines may be unsafe: “On
    August 6, 2010, three U.S. Senators objected to the DHS’s
    expansion of the airport body scanner program. In a letter to DHS
    Secretary Janet Napolitano, Senators Collins (R-ME), Burr (R-NC),
    and Coburn (R-OK) asked “why the Department continues to
    purchase this technology when legitimate concerns about its safety
    appear to remain unanswered.” […] The Senators noted that
    “the issue of radiation associated with the backscatter x-ray
    AIT machines has not been adequately addressed by TSA.” They
    urged the agency’s Chief Medical Officer, working with independent
    experts, to conduct a review of the health effects on travelers and
    airport personnel.”

  • TSA employees could trade your
    nude pics: “In accordance with TSA’s own requirements, these
    vendors design the body scanner machines to include Ethernet
    connectivity, USB access, and hard disk storage. These capabilities
    enable the capture, storage, and transfer of the images of the naked
    human body. Nor did the Assessment address the risk that TSA
    employees could bring recording devices, such as cell phones and
    digital cameras, into the remote viewing areas.”

  • For the love of God, they’re
    running the full body scanners on Windows XP: “The machines run an
    embedded version of Microsoft Windows XP (Xpe) that is prone to
    security vulnerabilities.”

According to EPIC, one full-body AIT scanner already in use at a Florida courtroom was found to contain
six months’ worth of archived nude pictures. The nude pictures –
well, to be direct, “body scanner images” – were obtained by the
organization by
filing a FOIA request
. However, it is important to note that this
particular scanner was under the jurisdiction of the Department of
Justice rather than the TSA.

Meanwhile, American Airlines pilots are
in revolt against the full-body scanners. The Atlantic‘s
Jeffrey Goldberg recent published a forwarded letter by Captain Dave
Bates, president of the Allied Pilots Association, which represents
11,000 American Airlines pilots in arbitration. In the letter, Bates
urges
pilots to decline full-body scans
and to request alternate
screenings.

Bates
cites concerns of both radiation and dignity: ”It is important to
note that there are “backscatter” AIT devices now being
deployed that produce ionizing radiation, which could be harmful to
your health. Airline pilots in the United States already receive
higher doses of radiation in their on-the-job environment than nearly
every other category of worker in the United States, including
nuclear power plant employees. […] I share our pilots’ concerns
about this additional radiation exposure and plan to recommend that
our pilots refrain from going through the AIT. We already experience
significantly higher radiation exposure than most other occupations,
and there is mounting evidence of higher-than-average cancer rates as
a consequence.” […] There is absolutely no denying that the
enhanced pat-down is a demeaning experience. In my view, it is
unacceptable to submit to one in public while wearing the uniform of
a professional airline pilot. I recommend that all pilots insist that
such screening is performed in an out-of-view area to protect their
privacy and dignity.”

With
full-body scanners being sent to airports across the United States,
it’s unlikely EPIC’s lawsuit will stop them from being used. But the
lawsuit – and the Allied Pilots Association letter – are
important indicators of the deep public ambivalence surrounding their
use. In the meantime, the TSA is doing
their best to win the public over
.

The TSA maintains an actively updated list of which American airports are using AIT full-body scanners.

[Top image containes full-body scanner mockup and real images. Right-hand image via Transportation Security Administration]