Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Backscatter X-rays

Our romantically named Sky Harbor airport has been promising to pilot new back-scatter x-ray technology (labelled "the virtual strip-search" by the ACLU) at security checkpoints. The roll-out has been delayed for a while, but it looks like it's back on track and will be operational this weekend.
The Arizona Republic Story:
I've only had the chance to glance quickly at the many responses to the article linked on the website above, but they seem to run the usual gamut of "it's about time, we need to be safe," to "I have nothing to hide, so why should I worry," to "it's a neo-con plot!!" (these are paraphrases, of course).

EPIC (Electronic Privacy Information Center)'s page on backscatter technology:

And the TSA's (Transportation Security Administration) page on privacy and backscatter:

Remarkable difference in the level of detail available in the images between the EPIC article (drawing on older reports, presumably) and how the TSA supposedly have tweaked it to reduce the invasion of privacy (down to chalk outlines). One wonders that, given that they're actually doing this, will it actually detect anything useful, and will it detect anything that couldn't be detected by other less intrusive means? It seems to be a solution looking for a problem, another technophilic fix to the problem of security (see David Lyons' Surveillance After September 11; Blackwell).

There's been some concern by the ACLU and others about the fate of these images (who has access, can they be stored, could they end up on the Internet, etc.) According to the TSA (FWIW)--see above link and their link to their FAQ on privacy, scroll to the bottom for backscatter: --

"Images will not be printed, stored or transmitted
To further enhance privacy, when the Transportation Security Officer has resolved any anomaly, the image is erased from the screen. The capability of printing, storing or transmitting the image is not available to the Transportation Security Officer operating the system."

Note that this doesn't say that these images can't be printed, stored, or transmitted, just that the Officer monitoring them can't do this. And note also that the image is erased (passive voice; by whom?) "from the screen." Is it erased from the computer itself? Pick pick pick.

[EDIT: one last thing, almost all of this debate is framed in terms of privacy--which seems obvious since we're talking about taking x-rays of people which see through their clothes. But, again following some of David Lyons' thinking about surveillance, we also need to think this through in terms of other issues, like dignity (a human right according to the UN), and this whole thing certainly seems undignified.

1 comment:

Ted Striphas said...

...I feel foolish to say this, Greg, but I had no idea. Thanks for bringing this new technology to broader public attention. And I'd agree--"privacy" seems to have less traction in the courts and in the US more generally these days, and as such the move to human rights (i.e., dignity) may be a longer term battle worth fighting.