The Mercedes Benz of Privacy Destruction

I considered a Great Debate about this, just to see what people would say, but then I realized, I’m not sure what my position is and I’m probably not the best person to start a potential “argument.”

Okay, so I had a job interview yesterday with a company (I suppose I can mention the name, it’s American Science and Engineering) that makes X-ray type security devices. Some of the things they make are rather typical looking machines like you walk through at the airport. They also make the one that’s been in the news that scans an entire body in order to view what’s under clothing…some people really don’t want airport employees seeing them naked, so they’re up in arms. Go figure.

They also make larger contraptions that scan semi trucks and train cars. The devices look for everything from organic material (read: drugs and bombs) to weapons. Please see the Mercedes of Invasion here:

Anyway, the interviewer asked me if I noticed the white box trucks driving around. “Oh yeah,” says I, “The big benz I just passed!”

He then went on to explain that if I had any weed in my car (which was parked in the parking lot) the truck drivers would be in soon to arrest me. Apparently, they actually have trucks that drive around and detect (within a certain range) drugs, weapons, and bomb-making materials.

I don’t do drugs, though, there was a half finished coffee in my car and maybe that tipped them off. At least they didn’t arrest me. If I did do drugs, I wouldn’t put them in my vehicle and drive off to an interview with a security company.

So, I don’t know what I think about phantom trucks driving around certain neighborhoods (presumably only lower-income neighborhoods, thus making the technology unfairly applied) and arresting everyone within a 30 mile radius who may have contraband somewhere in their vicinity.

What if I’m trying to smuggle cousin Bob into the drive in? What if my loose leaf tea is mistaken for marijuana? What if I’m a farmer with a load of fertilizer? Just seems to be a lot of potential for abuse here and very few rules about how it can be applied. Illegal search and seizure anyone?

On the one hand, sure, you’re not supposed to have bombs and drugs in your posessions. Fair enough. On the other hand…err…don’t we have laws about probable cause? A fair expectation of privacy? If they can detect illegal drugs surely there’s the potential to detect other things that are none of anyone’s business?

Hmm…maybe this is a debate. Please move if you see fit…I swear I won’t be offended.

What sort of technology do they use to do the scan? How safe is it for live organisms?

There’s more information about the technology here: Z Backscatter X-ray Imaging | Rapiscan AS&E

But I’m not sure how safe it is. I sort of assumed it was just as safe as walking through the metal detector at the airport, but then realized it’s NOT a metal detector, it’s actual X-rays.

I could find out…they’ve asked me back for another interview. I’m a writer, so my job would be…err…writing instructions for how to interfere with people’s private belongings. Actually, doing things like writing user and service manuals for the machinery (like the things that scan baggage, etc.). I likely will NOT take this job. IN fact, I’m not likely a candidate because of the extensive background search necessary…these things are used by government agencies, so I’d have to have a high level security clearance, which I doubt I would pass. (I married an illegal immigrant.)

I thought it was unconstitutional search to use an electronic device to look in on where you couldn’t see by more conventional means, without a warrant or consent.

I thought it was unconstitutional at least in SOME circumstances. Clearly, we give up the right to being searched when we go through airport security. But in that case, you KNOW your bags will be X-rayed. Cargo coming in from another country is similarly scanned.

But I’m not kidding…these trucks simply drive around detecting whatever. And they can see an AWFUL lot. I was actually sort of shocked. And while I can hear the objections now…“Drugs are illegal, if you don’t want to get in trouble, don’t grow them in your closet, etc.”…this kind of random “driving down the street looking for trouble” really gives me goosebumps.

Nope. There was a case that went to SCOTUS a few years back in which police checked out a guy’s place using nightvision gear. They were on the street and noticed that his place was really bright in their nightvision gear, even though to the naked eye, there was nothing unusual about it. They got a warrant, went in and found that he had a massive pot growing operation and he got to go to jail. Total BS that they can do this, IMHO, but there ya have it.

This scares the bejeeses out of me!!

I have heard of pot growing operations being busted because their power bills suddenly skyrocketed. April bill = $54, May bill = $67, Jun bill = $3,645. This tipped someone off that they’d installed a bunch of growlights and whatever other equipment is necessary to grow weed. I don’t find that terribly shocking…it seems close enough to “probable cause” or suspicion of some sort.

Then again, doesn’t there have to be some sort of limit to this? Are we all going to be living in homes with glass walls in case we’re doing something illegal. Couple this with my VERY little faith in the way the justice system is applied, the lopsidedness with regard to income levels and skin color and I find myself becoming a conspiracy theorist.

Didn’t they used to disallow evidence in court if it was obtained without probably cause and a search warrant? In what way does driving around in a truck with fancy equipment get you an automatic end-run around that warrant?

True, but as I recall, in that case the court decided that you don’t have a privacy interest in the heat that is radiating from your house. This technology appears to be projecting X-rays into your house, then reading the results. So, there’s a subtle difference: in one case, the guy’s house was giving off heat that was just waiting to be detected, but in the other, they’re actively shooting radiation into your property. I’m not sure that’ll be viewed as the same sort of “passive detection”.

Big Brother is Watching, beware the Thought Police!

I’m not sure what SCOTUS case you’re talking about. Kyllo (2001) had the opposite ruling: that thermal imaging does constitute a Fourth Amendment search, even though it is only a passive remote detection with no physical trespass. I think calling it “total BS”–either way the ruling goes–is rather simplistic, though.

The basic point of the majority opinion seems to be that one’s expectation of privacy in the home is relative to equipment in “general public use.” For example, aircraft surveillance is legal because airplanes with windows are often used by the public; but infrared imaging is not, because this is something not–yet–in common public use. The rule, like one’s expectation of privacy, is dependent on technology. This requires some judgment more substantial than simple “public availability” but less than ubiquity: The more night-vision equipment enters general use, the less expectation of privacy you will have against thermal imagers.

Presumably these “truck drivers” are actually police officers, otherwise I don’t see them arresting anyone. And I doubt that anyone is going to use this technology to look for a random joint in anyone’s car (and I doubt that it would be able to do that anyhow). More likely it will be used to look for vehicles being used to smuggle large quantities of illicit drugs, where the large mass might be detectable.

And as for the people scanning technology that can view under clothing, I’m actually in favor of this, if it simplifies the airport screening process, as it’s already too much of an annoyance. And so what if the technology can look under your clothes and “see” your genitalia? Almost everyone has one or the other type.

And one reassuring thing about this is you must have to be growing an awful lot of weed to be trapped in this way. One growlight in a closet is probably not going cause a blip, so at least this strategy does target the big growers and not the small timers.

Additionally, the view the user/screener sees has been “toned down” to the extend that it’s really only an outline that could be male or female. Unless there’s a gun in your belt or some organic substance in your pocket, then there’s an outline of that as well. It’s not particularly obscene…there’s a representation of it on the pamphlet they gave me yesterday.

Besides, I’m sure the objection isn’t just to the screener being able to tell if you’re male or female. It’s more the potential for the screener taking those images and using them for some other purpose.

IT DOESN’T. You might note, for example, that these cases actually, you know, went to court. Appeals courts, at multiple levels up to and including SCOTUS, have put quite a bit of thought into whether and when various high-tech surveillance devices constitute searches. I posted one recent cite, regarding one particular facet of privacy law (4th Amendment, home searches). I don’t think it’s quite as simple as OMG TEH FEDS ARE WATCHING. Technology necessarily changes privacy rights, without any help from the government at all, as the Kyllo opinion noted; sometimes technology increases privacy, and sometimes it decreases it. This is no conspiracy, this is just change.

But don’t let me stop you from enjoying your conspiracy theories. Tinfoil is in, and oh-so-comfortable.

The truck driver in the parking lot is a law enforcement officer? :dubious:

FWIW, a friend of ours works for Rapiscan, who makes some backscatter detector portals for screening humans, but nothing as mobile as AS-E’s van-mounted system. Their primary focus is cargo and baggage scanning with huge drive-through portal and gantry systems.

Reassurance found on the page describing a gantry system that scans rail cars and freight containers with a 6 mV xray linear accelerator: “Radiation safe for operators, observers and stowaways”

Okay, I’ll hold off on the tinfoil hat for now.

And yes, I’m sure the threat of imminent arrest was tongue in cheek. He may have simply wanted to gauge my reaction.

I understood that some of these mobile units are intended for use in border crossing areas. Still gives me some wiggle room to develop a conspiracy theory since semi-local borders (in Vermont) were being loosely defined to mean “anything within 100 miles of the border” and they were stopping locals every day on their way to and from work. They are still doing so as far as I know.

Okay, so no conspiracy. But maybe I’d better get that Dominican out of my closet, eh?

It may, in fact, be the Kyllo case that I’m thinking of.

The problem with that attitude, however, is that it puts the technology in the hands of government organizations with a history of abusing their powers/technology that they presently have (Warrantless wiretaps, anyone?) and civil rights tend to be just like your worldly possessions in that they’re a bitch to get back, once you’ve given them away.

Technology, like any tool, will be both used and abused among any group of people using it. “The problem with freedom of the press, however, is that it puts the technology in the hands of journalists with a history of abusing their powers…”

But I don’t think I understand your example. The Kyllo test seems to be whether the technology is already in general use. As far as I know, wiretapping is not in general use by the public. (This is not to say that wiretapping is technologically difficult–it’s usually trivial–or that wiretapping technology is not available on the market or that it’s never used. The test seems to be what you’d expect of another reasonable private citizen, as with the airplane example Kyllo mentions.) If you’re using your CB radio to order from the old dope peddler, do you have a reasonable expectation that the government isn’t listening? If ten years from now thermal-imaging HUDs are standard for night driving (if it saves Just One Child the expense will be worth it!) does Kyllo still have a reasonable expectation that the police will turn theirs off when they drive down his street, so as not to see the warm glow from his grow lamps?

Our constitution was put in place to limit government’s powers, not that of journalists.