Airport 'Body Scan' Technology Raises Privacy Concerns

By Lawrence Morahan | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

( - The use of new technology at US airports that allows Customs officials to see through the clothes of people suspected of smuggling drugs into the United States is drawing fire from legal groups over possible infringement of Fourth Amendment rights.

The new Body Search system, which is currently operational at eight US international airports, allows officials to view through a suspect's clothes by using reflected x-ray energy to produce images of objects concealed on a person's body.

In operation at some airports for over six months, most travelers don't know of the devices' existence and most of those who have undergone a scan have not found the system unduly intrusive, US Customs reports.

"We're trying to make the least intrusive means of carrying out our responsibilities to ensure that dangerous contraband, such as narcotics, do not enter the commerce of the United States, and this is a device that seeks to do exactly that," said Vince Bond, a spokesman for the US Customs Service.

On average, only one out of every 2,000 international passengers comes under the level of suspicion that warrants a choice of having to undergo a "pat down," or a body scan, Bond said.

Customs officials do all they can to respect the suspect's privacy and civil rights, he said.

If the suspect does opt for the body scan, he or she must sign a consent form stating their compliance, and a customs' supervisor must approve the scan.

Customs officials then take the passenger to a private area, or closed room, out of view of the general public, where the scan is conducted. The system operator, who must be of the same sex as the person being scanned, is the only individual who has a view of the screen.

Legal watchdog groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, say the system violates suspects' privacy, however. Conservatives also are concerned about the way in which suspects are selected for search.

"To the extent that consent is required for this type of search, and obtained, it doesn't violate the Fourth Amendment," said Todd Gaziano, a senior fellow in Legal Studies at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.

"But, there is nevertheless still a concern about which people are temporarily detained and requested to either consent to this type of search or a pat down search," he said.

Customs officials reported that a two-year reform effort at the agency has sought to ensure that neither racial nor gender bias plays a role in the selection of passengers for Customs personnel searches.

"The new statistics indicate that Customs is searching fewer innocent travelers of all races and genders, and more effectively targeting those carrying contraband," Customs Commissioner Raymond Kelly reported two months ago.

The Fourth Amendment prohibits even a temporary stop to question someone without at least reasonable and rational suspicion that they are engaged in a crime. Under this Amendment, no search can be conducted unless there is a warrant for the search or probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed.

"We have to be careful that we correctly balance the public safety concerns and legitimate law enforcement objectives with our Fourth Amendment freedoms," Gaziano said. The careful monitoring of how such technologies are used in the field is more important than condemning new technologies altogether, he said.

According to analysis of 8,234 "comment cards" from people who underwent an examination that involved an over-the-clothing pat down from March 1 to September 31, 1999, 82 percent were complimentary of customs officials' professionalism during the examination; 11 percent contained complaints; 4 percent contained suggestions for improvement, and the remaining 3 percent contained comments on the airline, airport facility, or another government agency.

Bond said the system has not been in operation long enough to produce clear statistics about its effectiveness, but it has detected evidence that has led to arrests. "It's hard to believe that somebody carrying narcotics on their person would agree to go through a body search and think they would get away with it."

US Customs officials last year seized over a million pounds of drugs, including marijuana, heroin, meth-amphetamine and cocaine, coming into the United States.

The devices have been installed at airports in Los Angeles, New York, Newark, Houston, Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, and Washington-Dulles. The amount of radiation produced by the devices is minimal, Customs officials report.

When funds allow, the system will be installed at additional US airports, Bond said.