Focusing public attention on emerging privacy and civil liberties issues

FOIA Note #20 (August 15, 2011)

Government Transparency

Snapshot

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The Disclosure

In response to an EPIC Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, the Department of Homeland Security disclosed this "partially releasable" document.

The Issue

Government deployment of body scanner technology in surface transit venues and street-roving vans.

The Background

In 2005, the Transportation Security Administration, a Department of Homeland Security component, began testing body scanner technology to screen air travelers. These systems produce detailed, three-dimensional images of individuals. Security experts have described whole body scanners as the equivalent of "a physically invasive strip-search."

Recently the Department of Homeland Security began testing body scanner devices at surface transportation stations. In 2006 and 2009, body scanner machines were tested at a New Jersey train station.

Recent news stories have also documented the implementation of body scanner technology in vans that are able to scan other vehicles while driving down public roadways. These vans, known as "Z Backscatter Vans," are capable of seeing through vehicles and clothing and routinely store the images that they generate.

In November 2010, EPIC filed a FOIA request with the Department of Homeland Security, seeking documents concerning the use of body scanner technology by law enforcement agencies in surface transit and street-roaming vans.

The Significance

The Department of Homeland Security continues to refuse to provide information about body scanner technology to the American public.

About the Freedom of Information Act

The Freedom of Information Act establishes a legal right for individuals to obtain records in the possession of government agencies. The FOIA is critical for the functioning of democratic government because it helps ensure that the public is fully informed about matters of public concern. The FOIA has helped uncover fraud, waste, and abuse in the federal government. It has become particularly important in recent years as the government has tried to keep more of its activities secret.