Body-Scanners in Courthouses Have Stored Thousands of Rather Personal Images

By Joseph Calamia | August 5, 2010 3:31 pm

securityIt’s official: a full-body security scanner can theoretically store your blurry nude picture. After a Freedom of Information Act request from the advocacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center, the U.S. Marshals Service released 100 of 35,314 stored images taken by a scanner at an Orlando, Florida, courthouse. Though airport security scanners use similar radio wave technology to get a hazy peek under your clothes, whether these scanners can store your image still seems unclear.

Publications such as CNET question if these images mean a change in federal officials’ statement that the scanners cannot store images:

For the last few years, federal agencies have defended body scanning by insisting that all images will be discarded as soon as they’re viewed. The Transportation Security Administration claimed last summer, for instance, that “scanned images cannot be stored or recorded.” [CNET]

The Transportation Security Administration responds on their blog that they stick by that original statement. Though the recently released images prove that the Marshal Service stores scanned images, the Marshal Service is not the TSA. The first falls under the Department of Justice, the second under the Department of Homeland Security.

As we’ve stated from the beginning, TSA has not, will not and the machines cannot store images of passengers at airports. The equipment sent by the manufacturer to airports cannot store, transmit or print images and operators at airports do not have the capability to activate any such function. [TSA]

Part of the reason for the now viral story is that the scanner images appearance comes just after a late-July announcement that the TSA will deploy additional “advanced imagining technology” at 28 airports.

The revelation comes at a tense time. Two weeks ago, when Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said such scanners would appear in every major airport, privacy advocates such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington D.C. filed a lawsuit to stop the device rollout. []

The scanners employ a millimeter wave radiometer which uses radio frequency waves to image visitors. In a letter published on the Electronic Privacy Information Center site, the acting administrator of the TSA responds to the chairman of Homeland Security: it seems that though the machines at airports are manufactured with the capability to store images, but that capability is used in “testing mode” only–and not at airports. The letter also says that security officers cannot put the machines into this storage mode.

Still, the Center filed a lawsuit last month to suspend the deployment of body scanners at US airports, saying that the scanning program violates the Privacy Act, Administrative Procedure Act, Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the Fourth Amendment.

The TSA is looking to modify the machines further to protect passengers’ privacy, for example by replacing the somewhat realistic nude image with a “paper-doll-like figure,” The Boston Globe reports, but the Center isn’t satisfied.

This will not solve the privacy issues, said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, because the images of travelers’ naked bodies are still being captured by the machine. “We think the privacy safeguards are mostly fiction,’’ said Rotenberg, adding that a congressional investigation is underway to review the scanners. [Boston Globe]

Related content:
80beats: TSA Threatens Bloggers Who Published Security Info, Then Backs Off
80beats: Editing Goof Puts TSA Airport Screening Secrets on the Web
80beats: Are Digital Strip Searchers Coming Soon to Every Airport Near You?
80beats: Computer Glitch Delays Airline Flights Around the Country
DISCOVER: A Wing and a Prayer: The U.S.’s Crumbling Air-Travel Infrastructure

Image: flickr / an opportunity for identity

  • Beth

    Hmmm … “we don’t store the images” BUT we do send them to someone who does.

    Why are we treated like children by our own government? More transparency in both our government and the images are needed. I have an artificial hip joint which has a unique and registered number, just like a gun. Tell me that doesn’t set me apart and invade my privacy –especially once the government has forced my doctors to store my medical info on some viral machine. My passport has an RFID transmitter which MUST be active, or I will be detained and not allowed to return to my own country. (Please read the definition of “passport.” How are the border jails?)

    So easy to match my hip with my chip! Once they have 3 unique identifiers for me, they can find me easily with my enhanced cell phone GPS system. We have stepped too far back – into 1984! I, for one, will not cooperate in this process.

    “The people with the most security are in prison. That’s why it’s called ‘MAXIMUM security.’

    “The more security you have, the less freedom you have.”

  • Jim Johnson

    Hmmm I assume “peak under your clothes” is a typo, since it means quite a different thing from “peek under your clothes”.

  • Joseph Calamia

    Thanks for the catch, Jim. Fixed!

  • Wimpie

    This is a strip-search, period. It makes no difference that the technology allows it to be done on an industrial scale, it’s a violation of privacy that ultimately has, at best, no effect on safety. At worst, it exposes frequent fliers to elevated doses of x-ray radiation which may cause more deaths by cancer than the terrorists could ever kill with an airplane.

    Body-cavities are not revealed, thus making this simply an exercise in power-mongering voyeurism.

    You MUST opt-out of these intrusive searches, and maybe be wanded/patted by a same-sex guard. I Opt’ed Out a few months ago, which gave me the opportunity to officially express my displeasure – the smurf wrote down the reason for my opting-out for their official records (it’s a strip-search, I said). I suggest more people do this.

    Plus – do you want your kids showing up to Beavis & Butthead in the back room looking like this:

  • James E

    @ Beth, Where does it say they transmit the scan to someone who stores it? If that is the case please provide a reference as I would like to know that. Do you mean TSA does or the Marshals Service?

    @ Wimpie From the post I get that the Airports use the Millimeter wave scanner which is very low energy, lower than visible light (

    The Backscatter X-ray does expose you to X-ray radiation, between .005-.009 mrems, but a 6 hour plane flight exposes you to ~2 mrems. That is 200 to 400 times more (

    While this does not address the privacy concerns we can not use radiation exposure as a valid concern against this technology.

    For me the privacy concerns do not bother me. This is just my personal option, but the images, if they are stored and or get out, are not clear enough to do anything with. I personally do not care if a fuzzy scanned image of me gets leaked. I might have a different feeling if the technology develops to the stage where it is almost photo quality scan of me without clothes. But as it stands I don’t think you could really tell me form someone else’s scan if we of similar build.

  • MJ

    The question this raises for me is one I don’t see speculated upon in this article –
    How easy is it to activate the “test mode”.

    If there’s a way to do it, you can be sure it will be done for someone. Just as DVD region free cracks leak, the “test mode” hacks will (or have) leak(ed) for these, allowing someone with the motive to store the images. That’s what happens with software.

  • Beth

    @ James E.
    “William Bordley, an associate general counsel with the Marshals Service, acknowledged in the letter that ‘approximately 35,314 images…have been stored on the Brijot Gen2 machine’ used in the Orlando, Fla. federal courthouse. In addition, Bordley wrote, a Millivision machine was tested in the Washington, D.C. federal courthouse but it was sent back to the manufacturer, which now apparently possesses the image database.”

    You seem to deliberately miss my point! If they can “accidently” save these images, what else can be done by accident? When they scan our bodies, they also scan our wallets. Our currency and our credit cards are all scannable. Those with this technology can tell which one of us is worth mugging, or may be carrying too much cash out of the country. It’s not the image that is the real problem, it’s the process itself that’s at issue. Why is our currency scannable in the first place?

    Some of our cars are equipped with OnStar™ or similar equipment which is capable of both sending and receiving messages, including turning off the engine of an auto which has been reported as stolen. Today, it’s optional, but when it is mandated “for my safety,” cars will be at the mercy of anyone who wants to stop me, or all traffic. How do you feel about Big Brother or Big Box Corp. having a kill switch on 30 million cars simultaneously? Where does this intrusion and control for “my safety” end? We cannot become complacent, or today’s inch is tomorrow’s mile. Today’s technology in the hands of tomorrow’s generals is a sword of Damocles we cannot undo. I will not build my own cell and then hand over the key to anyone. Will you?

  • Brian Too

    Seems intrusive and unnecessary. Also, where is the political sensitivity meter on the people in charge here? These imaging scanners were already controversial and that resulted in the “naughty bits blurring” feature. Then they go and store the resulting images??

    It’s like a really, really bad peep show. Still I feel certain, there is a market for blurry, naked images of anyone even slightly famous. Store those images and you are making it inevitable that leaked security images of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, among thousands of others, will make their way out.

    Bad, bad idea.

  • RitaW

    USA Today’s article explains why these machines are bad:

    The TSA cannot answer this question:

    “Do these machines increase the risk of cancer “WHATSOEVER” ?

    Their answer should be “Yes, No, We don’t know”…

    NOT, “they have as much radiation as a cel phone”.

    That does NOT answer the question presented.

    It is like asking, “Do you like to go to the movies ?”, and the answer given is “green”….

    Just answer TSA…. Yes, No, We don’t know. They will not because the answer is “Yes, it does increase one’s cancer risk, over time”. It is a low risk, but a RISK nonetheless. That should be people’s concerns. Not who sees you naked.

    In the photos of the people from the machines, you can see their tibia (leg bone). That my friends, is enough radiation to increase cancer.

    As for the millimeter wave machines, Medical FACT: They alter your DNA strands.

    The machines also cannot see inside ones rectum or vagina, so they are USELESS.

    Make me go though them and I, and thousands of others, STOP flying.

    I’ll take the pat search no matter what.

    Oh yea, I forgot to mention the TSA SWORE that the images could not be stored…..

    Guess what?

    They LIED:

    Have a nice day.

  • Sarah

    What about the minors who go through this machine? Isn’t that getting dangerously close to child pornography? Is it ok for a middle aged man to see naked body images of a 12 year old girl? Doesn’t that seem wrong to anybody?

  • Furbaby

    Imagine the outrage of having to choose between being subjected to a virtual strip search or being groped and molested when having to report for JURY DUTY of all things!! And it’s not as if jury duty is optional, either!! None of this is even legal! A government agent has no more right to sexually molest and/or strip search you than anyone else! As Ron Paul says, when are we going to stand up and say enough is enough? How about if everyone reporting for jury duty on any given day stood outside the courthouse and protested the groping and the body scanning and REFUSED to go inside! What a concept! We also need to start suing the TSA for civil rights violations and get criminal indictments of TSA employees. These TSA employees need to be charged with sex crimes and dealt with accordingly (jail/prison time and registering as sex offenders). After all, they AGREED to do these things as a condition of their employment. Do we have the backbone to start doing these things or do we just roll over and accept this brutal, repressive Soviet style tyranny? Remember, those who would trade freedom for “security” deserve (and will get), NEITHER!!

  • Dan

    Health concerns.
    Scientists at UCSF (whom I happen to trust) are unconvinced about the safety of the machines.

  • Steven
  • weather

    80. I was just looking for this information for some time. After 6 hours of continuous Googleing, finally I got it in your site. I wonder what’s the lack of Google strategy that don’t rank this type of informative web sites in top of the list. Usually the top web sites are full of garbage.

  • Jeff Buske

    Wow so many high quality comments! The scanners are wrong on so many areas privacy, legal search, improper touching, child pornography, health radiation and disease transfer. The radiation dose is far greater than the “official” numbers show. This equipment is a health risk children, elderly, expecting parents and people with DNA repair issues.

    The direct overscan and scattered dose to security workers and travelers is significant. The security area is radioactive and should be clearly marked that radiation equipment is in use.


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