X-Ray Vans Challenge Privacy

Forbes published a story online yesterday about the use of “backscatter x-ray vision” in mobile vans. This scanning technology is the same as that employed at some airports, enabling authorities to see through clothing and luggage. The article features the product being advertized and sold by American Science and Engineering, which has sold more than 500 of the scanners. Their (in my view, creepy) promotional video is embedded below:

The backscatter technology and safety are discussed in the Wikipedia article on the subject.

The use of this technology creates obvious privacy problems, particularly when wielded by or on behalf of governments, as is likely to be the case most of the time. Canada’s Privacy Commissioner has addressed the use of “millimetre-wave full body scans” — a somewhat more powerful version of this technology — for airport searches:

In planning for the deployment of the first 44 of these scanners, the federal government pledged to implement the program in a way that respects people’s privacy and dignity.

Here’s what the government promised:

– Passengers selected for secondary screening, either at random or for cause, can choose to pass through the scanner or to undergo a physical search (see previous section.)
– No personal information, such as the passenger’s name, boarding pass number or passport information, is associated with the scanned image.
– The security officer with the passenger doesn’t see the scan, while the official viewing the scan cannot see the passenger.
– Images are examined for concealed threats and immediately deleted. They are not recorded or stored for future use.

So far as I know, she has not yet said anything about the mobile use of x-ray scanning.


  1. At 1-1:10 – The narrator states that the technology is very good at detecting substances contain low atomic number elements such as carbon, oxygen and nitrogen.

    Like, say, people.

    Or most other “natural” substances on this planet.

  2. Has there not already been documented cases where images taken from airport x-rays have been copied and kept by unscupulous individuals? I coudl swear that I encountered those stories earlier this year. This is terrifying, frankly. Private companies or security firms checking us out at any point while driving by? Big Brother indeed! These issues desperately need to be addressed by our lawmakers. The technology at this point is not so new, but exactly “how” it is used is. This leaves us still able to address the technology and its use despite its new application. Plus, are we not paranoid enough of creepy vans slowly cruising around our neighborhoods checking things out? Security is one thing, but this is disturbingly creepy.

  3. Creepy vans indeed. From childhood I’ve been wary of vans for their abduction possibilities. This just pushes that feeling over the top. Yikes.

  4. These ‘devices’ aren’t simply a challenge to privacy, they are an invasion!

    Of course, even this cannot penetrate LEAD. In this new world where government apparently does what it will without checks and balances, will they make it illegal to enclose personal and private matters (like your house, car, underwear) in LEAD? Or will you be branded a ‘threat’ and arrested for having lead containers?

    I’m shocked more people aren’t upset over this! This is 100% absurd! There should NEVER be allowed one of these on a public highway without some kind of WARRANT, EVER!