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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.

Ralph Nader and EPIC Take On Full-Body Airport Scanners

body scans

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:

  • 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]