Privacy group’s FOIA on TSA scanners raises safety questions again

By: Mark Rockwell

EPIC's Marc Rotenberg

Government documents obtained and released by a privacy group have raised concerns about the Department of Homeland Security’s use of airport scanners.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) claims documents it received recently under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit filed against DHS show that the department mischaracterized the radiation risks of the Transportation Security Administration’s airport body scanners and didn’t move to protect its workers from radiation exposure. The documents made available on EPIC’s Website on June 24 include agency emails, radiation studies, memoranda of agreement concerning radiation testing programs, and results of some radiation tests.

EPIC has been fighting the use of advanced scanning technology by TSA for months. It urged a court in March to force the agency to release 2,000 airport body scan images and the organization’s President, Marc Rotenberg, testified at congressional hearings on the scanners and privacy last spring.

EPIC said one document set reveals that “even after TSA employees identified cancer clusters possibly linked to radiation exposure, the agency failed to issue employees dosimeters - safety devices that could assess the level of radiation exposure.”

Another document, it said, indicates DHS mischaracterized the findings of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, stating that NIST "affirmed the safety" of full body scanners.

The documents, said EPIC, reveal the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) disputed it affirmed the devices’ safety, saying that it didn’t test the devices. Additionally, it said a Johns Hopkins University study revealed that radiation zones around body scanners could exceed the "General Public Dose Limit."

In response to the concerns raised by EPIC’s release of the documents, TSA again said it has worked to make sure the technology is safe. "TSA has implemented stringent safety protocols to ensure that technology used at airports to screen people and property is safe for all passengers, as well as the TSA workforce. In addition to regular maintenance, each individual machine that uses X-ray technology is regularly tested to ensure the radiation emitted falls within the national safety standards."

TSA has repeatedly said the screening technology used at checkpoints is not a danger to passengers and staff. It completed re-testing of it advanced imaging X-ray scanners in the wake of measurement errors uncovered earlier this spring shows radiation levels for the machines are safe.

The TSA began re-testing its AIT machines in March after it said it found some “inaccuracies” in how contractors were reporting radiation levels that affected test results.

The agency said it had completed retesting of all of the AIT units to ensure they were screening at safe levels. In a post on its Web blog on May 26, the TSA said “everything came back fine” on the re-testing and offered up the records for third party individual review of the scanners.

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