Homeland Security Wants to X-Ray Your Car

A TSA officer views the scan from a backscatter machine at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix, in February 2007. Backscatter X-ray technology is currently being tested for cars to stop potential terrorists from blowing up a car bomb at one of the nation’s airports, homeland security officials say.

By Thomas Frank, USA TODAY
A controversial new X-ray technology is being tested that could stop potential terrorists from blowing up a car bomb at one of the nation’s airports, homeland security officials say.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is running a test at a North Carolina ferry terminal of a 21-foot-high arch-like machine that shoots low-intensity X-rays at cars as they pass through. The photos show whether explosives or drugs might be in the car.

The technology, called backscatter X-ray, is in use at several airports to screen passengers. Privacy advocates have denounced scanning people as invasive because the X-rays can see through clothes.

Melissa Ngo, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who focuses on privacy issues, says using the technology for cars could pave the way for “Big Brother” government spying.

“If this technology ends up being deployed widely, it seems to be another step toward a society where you need to accept surveillance in every part of your life,” Ngo says.
FIND MORE STORIES IN: Washington | Afghanistan | al-Qaeda | Scotland | Transportation Security Administration | X-rays | Science | Engineering | Glasgow Airport | David Lewis | Sammon | Neuse River

TSA Assistant Administrator John Sammon said motorist privacy won’t be invaded because taking X-rays of cars “is a fairly non-intrusive way of being able to inspect vehicles that are coming in” to an airport. At many airports, cars are currently stopped at random and searched by authorities.

Sammon said the TSA has made no decision about using the X-ray portals at airports. The four-week test at a small ferry terminal in Cherry Branch, N.C., will gauge public reaction and the machine’s ability to find bombs, Sammon said.

Searches escalated last summer after two men with ties to al-Qaeda drove an SUV into entrance doors at Glasgow Airport in Scotland, igniting a fire. Sammon said the test is not related to the Glasgow terror attack.

The TSA has no intelligence pointing to a potential car bombing at an airport, Sammon said, adding that the X-ray machine could be useful if there was such a threat. “Rather than stopping all vehicles or doing random checks, you could run vehicles, especially large-panel trucks, through the machine,” Sammon said.

Ferry officials say the X-ray portal has intrigued but not alarmed motorists lining up for the 20-minute ferry ride from Cherry Branch across the Neuse River to Minnesott Beach on North Carolina’s coast. “I am not aware of any complaints,” said David Lewis, security coordinator for the North Carolina Ferry Division.

Similar machines are protecting military bases in the USA and in Afghanistan, said Joe Reiss, head of marketing for manufacturer American Science and Engineering. The machines, first marketed last year, cost $1.2 million to $1.7 million.

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