Engineer Files Lawsuit Against NY Street Body Scanners

Steve Watson


An engineer who exposed fundamental flaws in the TSA’s body scanners and eventually sued the agency, has now filed suit against the City of New York for proposals to use the scanners on the streets.

Last month, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly told CBS New York that his department is looking to deploy Terahertz Imaging Detection scanners on the street in the war on “illegal guns.”

The technology measures energy radiating from the body up to 16 feet away and can detect anything blocking it.

Kelly noted that the scanners, currently being would be used in “reasonably suspicious circumstances” only, and were intended to cut down on the number of stop-and-frisks on the street, which many consider to be a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The Commissioner suggested that once fully developed, the devices would be mounted in squad cars, noting that making the technology portable was a top priority.

Noting that the deployment of such technology onto the streets would raise significant privacy issues, the police Commissioner said “We have involved our attorneys as we go forward with this issue.”

Jonathan Corbett, an engineer and software designer, who runs the blog TSA Out Of Our Pants, announced this week that he has filed suit against New York City for “its testing and planned (or current?) deployment of terahertz imaging devices to be used on the general public from NYPD vans.”

Describing the devices as a “virtual stop-and-frisk,” Corbett notes that his civil complaint, comes attached with a motion for a preliminary injunction that would “prohibit use of the device on random people on their way to school, work, the theater, or the bar.”

“It is unfortunate that it seems that government at all levels is always in need of a fresh reminder that the citizens for whom it exists demand privacy, and that each technological advance is not a new tool to violate our privacy. However, as often as proves to be necessary, we will give them that reminder.” Corbett writes.

Corbett became the first person to sue the TSA relating to it’s body scanners after the federal agency deployed them as a primary screening method in 2010.

A video Corbett produced showing him walking through a scanner with a concealed metal object went viral on the internet last year. The TSA failed to even address the fact that Corbett had proven the body scanners could be easily defeated, and then it threatened journalists not to cover the story.

Corbett’s case was provided increased gravitas when a recent Homeland Security report noted that federal investigators have “identified vulnerabilities in the screening process” involving the scanners.

Members of Congress then invited him to present his findings in a hearing last May.

However, in October, the Supreme Court refused to reopen Corbett’s case against the TSA, after The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a previous dismissal by federal courts in Florida.

Health risks

It is important to note that the scanners currently being developed for use in New York are not the same as the TSA’s backscatter scanners, which emit radiation, and have been cited as potential health threats.

However, it has been noted that the proposed technology in these street scanners would subject citizens to another documented health risk – the destruction of DNA.

Studies reveal that THz waves “unzip double-stranded DNA, creating bubbles in the double strand that could significantly interfere with processes such as gene expression and DNA replication,” according to MIT’s Technology Review.

The scanners, which are much like the TSA’s airport ‘millimeter wave’ scanners, can create “bubbles in the double strand that could significantly interfere with processes such as gene expression and DNA replication,” according to the Center for Nonlinear Studies at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

For more information, also see this paper posted at the Cornell University Library.

The NYPD argues that the technology will only be used in exceptional circumstances, however, it is being fine-tuned with the help of the Department of Defense counter-terrorism unit, indicating that the intention is to scan people at rail stations or heavily populated places such as sporting events.

Indeed, multiple sets of documents released under the Freedom Of Information Act have proven that the Department of Homeland Security has been planning for some time to use body scanners beyond airports.

The most recent, obtained by Jon Corbett, revealed that in the year prior to rolling out body scanners in airports, the TSA was drawing up long term plans to deploy the machines at “ferry terminals, railway, and mass transit stations” as well as unspecified “other locations”.

The DHS has claimed that it dropped plans for mobile body scanners a long time ago. However,  a separate set of documents recently obtained by The Electronic Privacy Information Center revealed that the DHS continued to pursue the plans.

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