Passive Millimeter Wave Scanning and Privacy

I went through Denver International Airport during the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

I was not especially surprised when I came across this small sign (about 8 1/2 x 11 inches or A4 sized paper – click to enlarge):

All individuals are subject to screening beyond this point
Transportation Security Administration
Security Screening Notice
All individuals are subject to screening beyond this point

The sign was in a public area of the airport, and I thought it was reasonable to expect to be screened while in the airport.  What I never expected was what I saw next (again, click to enlarge):

Passive millimeter wave scanner in a public area of Denver International Airport

Passive millimeter wave scanner in a public area of Denver International Airport

Now, note a few things -

1.  This station is about 50m from the first sign.  According to the Wikipedia page on millimeter wave scanners, “[…] Farran Technologies, a manufacturer of one model of the millimeter wave scanner, the technology exists to extend the search area to as far as 50 meters beyond the scanning area which would allow security workers to scan a large number of people without their awareness that they are being scanned.” (note that the quote lacks any citation)

2. The sign describing what the device is has been placed immediately beside the scanner.  By the time you figure out what it is, you’ve already been strip searched.

3.  Notice that the people operating the scanner are sitting right beside it, in apparent contravention of TSA guidelines.  This Transportation Security Administration page states that “For additional privacy, the officer viewing the image is in a separate room and will never see the passenger and the officer attending to the passenger will never see the image. The officers have 2-way radios to communicate with other in case a threat object is identified.”

4.  This scanner is operating in a public area – not a secure area for passengers.  This is happening on the concourse near the food courts.  This again appears to be in contravention of TSA policy because they specify that millimeter wave scanning  “technology is a voluntary alternative to a pat-down during secondary screening.”  The food court is not a place that you would expect to undergo secondary screening, nor is it voluntary.

5.  Understanding that the machine and operators are in public, I went around the side of the machine to have a look at what was on the screen.  This threw the girl into a fit (picture of her below).  The man operating the machine was a bit less flummoxed, but it only took him a couple of seconds to turn off the monitor.  Now, I didn’t get much of a look, but the screen seemed to show a lot more than the TSA claims on this page.  My question is that if the scanner does not allow the operator to see “too much” of a person, then why can’t a casual bystander observe the same images as the operator?

I left the area, and asked another TSA officer on patrol if it was okay to take pictures in the airport.  He said that it was no problem so long as I wasn’t taking pictures of the output of computer screens in the check-in area.  After hearing that, I went back and took a couple more pictures – the only one I’ll post here is of the bossy girl that kept insisting loudly (and incorrectly) that I couldn’t take pictures in the area.  The other gentleman standing in the back also came over, but was far more civil.  Notice the operator that turned off the screen earlier sitting behind the monitor.

Rude TSA / DHS (neither?) lackey

Rude TSA / DHS (neither?) lackey

The TSA has tried to gloss this issue over with another one of their blog posts, but the whole article just glosses over the privacy problems.  Especially interesting on that page was this remark in the comments section by “Trollkiller” in response to someone who said that since people entered the airport, and the airport has a sign, they have given up their right to privacy:

” Your rights do NOT vanish because a Government entity posts a sign.

The courts have repeatedly held that common areas of an airport are indeed public spaces and as such all rights are upheld.

The area that this abomination operates in is a public space. As [a previous commenter has] pointed out most of the time you have no expectation of privacy in a public space.

As a photographer I can take your picture in a public space without your consent and use it as I wish without your permission as long as I use the image in a way that does not imply endorsement by you or places you in an untruthful light.

If I were to use a standard Sony Nightshot video camera and an IR pass through filter to see past your clothes, even though you are in that same public space, I would be violating you right to privacy and would be subjected to the legal penalties associated with that crime.

By the TSA using this MMW device to “see” past my clothing violates my reasonable expectation of privacy. Because this person is using the device under the color of law or pretend color of law, in order to detect contraband and to act on said contraband, the use of the device violates the Constitutional protection of the 4th Amendment.”

http://www.tsa.gov/travelers/airtravel/08conv_dnc.shtm discusses increased security at the airports during the conventions, including application of the scanners, but glosses over privacy implications.

This page from NPR says “This past week, the Transportation Security Administration introduced new security measures at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, including a controversial “whole-body scanner.” The scanner provides guards with an image that strips away a traveler’s clothing, revealing everything that person is carrying — and their naked bodies.”  The page also has a link to the audio story.

Image from the TSA showing output of a millimeter wave scanner.

Image from the TSA showing some output of a millimeter wave scanner.

This whole situation reeks.

If the public knew what the TSA was really up to here, they would be furious.

Get the word out, and let everyone know that there is nothing reasonable about a strip search under these conditions.

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3 Responses to “Passive Millimeter Wave Scanning and Privacy”

  1. Archie1954 Says:

    I knew this was coming because the US pushes everything to its ultimate absurdity. i have solved the problem for myself by refusing to ever travel in the US again. They treat everyone like potential terrorists when they themselves have acted as terrorists for many many years. Just ask Chile, Panama, Venezuela, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, etc.etc. US government hypocrisy stinks to High Heaven. No thank you. I don’t travel to have someone secretly strip search me. Maybe there are perverts who do. you might get a lot more dirty old men travelling in the US. but for me, I decline. there is absolutely nothing there that interests me anyway. I suppose if I was a sociologist or psychologist I could investigate corrupt cultures or psycopathic national breakdowns or the psychosis of militarism or some such deviant behaviour that the Americans are justly noted for. I think they call it exceptionalism. I agree that is a good description they are definitely exceptionally deranged.

  2. www.millimeterwaveporn.com « NachtVorst's Nocturnal Vagaries Says:

    […] privacy and bodily integrity. With passive millimeter wave scanning, privacy violations are already happening in public spaces on people who are not necessarily transportation passengers and not performed in a […]

  3. leo Says:

    The picture you posted at the end of this article has nothing to do with this technology. Passive scanners cannot generate such an image. That image is generated from active millimeter wave scanners.

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