TSA Discusses “Big Brother” Type Surveillance

Big Brother (via Google Images)

Last August Forbes blogger Andy Greenberg alerted his readers to a new and even more invasive practice from the TSA.  Scanning technology has now been adapted to fit inside “roving” vans, and talk says that stationary, walk-through units and vans will be used at large-scale events and venues as well as airports.  Officially called Z Backscatter Vans – after the x-ray technology employed – they “bounce a narrow stream of x-rays off and through nearby objects, and read which ones come back. Absorbed rays indicate dense material such as steel. Scattered rays indicate less-dense objects that can include explosives, drugs, or human bodies. That capability makes them powerful tools for security, law enforcement, and border control.”  I am sure it does, but I would not count on our government using these devices to secure our boarders.  Given recent developments with the ATF, one should not count on any degree of border security anytime soon.  According to the Center for Public Integrity, as federal prosecutors built a case against Mexican drug lords, the ATF purposely let hundreds of guns pass into the hands of “straw buyers with the expectation they might cross the border and even be used in crimes.”  Such actions by federal organizations – employing surveillance on civilians while handing over weapons to foreign drug lords – should lead to questions among the public as to our government’s priorities.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) also points to the fact that such surveillance tools have been in the works since 2006. (You can find the report they acquired from DHS here.)  Of particular concern with these surveillance methods is the illegal and invasive deployment – not to mention the potential health effects – of such technology. According to a more recent piece by Greenberg, additional plans for public surveillance have been discussed with various organizations.

“One project allocated to Northeastern University and Siemens would mount backscatter x-ray scanners and video cameras on roving vans, along with other cameras on buildings and utility poles, to monitor groups of pedestrians, assess what they carried, and even track their eye movements. In another program, the researchers were asked to develop a system of long range x-ray scanning to determine what metal objects an individual might have on his or her body at distances up to thirty feet.”

As per their website, Siemens is a global company that deals in renewable/green technologies such as electric cars. Specifically, their site will lead you to believe they deal only with industrial infrastructure, energy technology, and health care.  Perhaps roving vans capable of scanning thirty feet to peer inside one’s bag or purse, inside one’s pockets, or even analyze a person’s eye movement is now considered by those in Homeland Security as a necessary part of infrastructure. Not to mention the fact that these vans will not be marked, but will undoubtedly remain as inconspicuous as an unmarked policy cruiser.  Such practices are not ‘extra’ security measures; they are invasive, offensive, and unacceptable.

Rapiscan Eagle M45

Another organization awarded contracts in the deal is Rapiscan Systems, a long-time favorite of the TSA.  Headquartered in Hawthorne, California, they also have additional facilities in Finland, India, Malaysia, Singapore, the United Kingdom and the United States.  Moreover, their surveillance technology is employed in numerous venues including airports, government and corporate buildings, correctional and prison facilities, postal facilities, military zones, sea ports and border crossings.  In concern over the TSA’s increasingly invasive scanning and pat-down practices, The Hill reported Rapiscan’s presence in the government surveillance industry last year.  In 2009, the company was rewarded a contract worth up to $173 million and has spent nearly $3.6 million in lobbying since 2007.  According to the article, “Their parent company, OSI Systems Inc., “has an active political action committee. During the 2010 campaign, it made more than $60,000 in campaign contributions to candidates and committees, according to FEC records.”  However, more startling figures are available from Reason Magazine. Brian Doherty published the following on March 3rd:

“Rapiscan and its parent OSI Systems, and their subcontractors have donated a combined $1.75 million to federal politicians in the past decade, according to data provided by the MapLight Foundation, of Berkeley, California. Rapiscan and OSI also spent $2.2 million in lobbying from 1998 to 2010, MapLight found.”

Such figures suggest at least the possibility of a moral hazard (and I believe I am being generous here).  Moral hazard or not, such procedures blatantly violate Fourth Amendment rights protecting citizens from unreasonable searches. Regarding the program itself, EPIC’s staff counsel Ginger McCall stated, “These technologies are a gross violation of the Fourth Amendment, which guards against unreasonable searches, as travelers undergo a search without any suspicion of wrongdoing.  Whether or not this program has been rolled out or could be rolled out in the future, it needs to be shut down for good.”  Moreover, EPIC’s lawsuit against the TSA, filed last year, is concerned also with the potential health effects of “backscatter and active millimeter wave technology,” the primary concern being the effects of a concentrated dose of radiation on the skin.  Some fear this could result in increased rates of cancer cell generation.  Hearings begin on March 9 in Washington D.C.

When privacy becomes a matter of political penetration (via orwellsdreams.wordpress.com)

We should all be following this development. If we allow such policies to be implemented, they will certainly follow us (pun intended). One more point to make, and perhaps the most important.  Surveillance of this type is yet another example of government expansion into forbidden areas.  The evidence is out in the open: a decade of eroding our rights and trampling the Constitution beginning with the US Patriot Act, perpetually catering to the elite neoconservative agenda typified by increased defense spending and U.S. interventionism under both parties, and a media organization so embedded within government itself that watching the nightly news is no more democratically effectual than voting for the lesser of two evils.  What we are left with is a country not our own. We pay taxes to an outdated institution based on the traditional feudal notion of aristocratic privilege, and for what?  So that they may safeguard their interests at the expense of ours – and with our tax dollars.  The war on terror begun under President Bush was simply the new panacea of fear that replaced worries perpetuated by the Cold War.  I am not saying such attacks are not a threat.  What I am saying is that such threats are vastly overstated, and to take the word of a Washington bureaucrat whose campaign contributions are dependent upon defense contractors is counterintuitive to liberty and sound judgment.  One must judge each and every situation according to what they know, not what they are told.  Until we learn to learn for ourselves, we are at the mercy of the Court.  Think of your children.  What will their futures be like?

See my related post – TSA: Is Privacy an Ultimatum?


About Jeremiah Dow
I have a B.S. in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics with a minor in Economics. I finished school in 2010 and am currently working on independent research in various areas including political and economic philosophy, government, and history. I am also currently looking for work in research, particularly the social sciences dealing with public policy work. I aspire to a top-level graduate institution, but would first prefer some professional research experience. Some of my primary influences are Ayn Rand, Noam Chomsky, and Howard Zinn among others.

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