Monday, 23 August 2010
Stored images at Justice Dept. raise privacy concerns
The leaders of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee wrote to the director of the US Marshals Service last week to question why the service stored images from whole body imaging devices the agency deployed in Florida.
The revelation earlier this month that the marshals captured and kept images with advanced imaging technology (AIT) at a US courthouse in Orlando, Fla., touched off a firestorm of criticism and raised questions as to whether the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) would do the same at US airports.
TSA has been aggressively setting up AIT devices around the nation in order to improve its detection of non-metallic explosives and other threatening items concealed by air passengers. The Marshals Service, an agency of the Justice Department, guards federal courthouses and other key infrastructure.
Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) wrote to Director John Clark August 19: "As you probably are aware, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has employed protocols for the use of AIT that includes a prohibition on the storage or retention of images from whole body imaging scans in most circumstances.
"We urge the US Marshals Service to examine and adopt privacy protocols at least as strong as those adopted by TSA, which includes a prohibition on the storage or retention of images from whole body scans, and a prohibition on the transmission of these images by any other electronic device," the senators said.
Lieberman and Collins cited press reports from news outlets such as the Orlando Sentinel that the US Marshals Service stored more than 35,000 scanned images captured at the Orlando federal courthouse from February 2010 through July 2010.
They demanded a detailed explanation from the Marshals Service as to why the agency stored the images from whole body scans. They further requested a list of any other locations where the agency is using AIT devices, regardless of whether those devices are storing X-ray pictures. If the devices have been storing such images, the senators demanded to know the rationale for doing so.
Privacy advocates have sharply criticized the federal plan to introduce 450 devices to US airports this year out of concern that the backscatter and millimeter wave images reveal the naked bodies of air passengers. While TSA devices have been modified to produce a chalky, ghostly outline in their images, some critics still see the pictures as an invasion of privacy.
The response of the US Marshals Service to the ongoing debate struck the senators as insensitive to the concerns of privacy advocates. A supervisor at the US Marshals told the Orlando Sentinel that everyone entering the courthouse knows they are being recorded due to the presence of regular security cameras and that the agency has no particular need to store the AIT images.
"This is a troubling response that suggests the US Marshals Service has failed to fully appreciate the seriousness of the issue. The perception of whole body imaging scans differs greatly from that of security camera footage, and therefore demands a higher level of sensitivity to the legitimate privacy concerns of those being scanned," Lieberman and Collins wrote.
The US Marshals Service released a statement in response to questions about their use of AIT devices on August 5.
The agency explained that it has used an AIT device known as the Gen 2 system from Brijot Systems to screen people going into the Orlando courthouse since 2007. The agency also briefly tested a System 350 from Millivision Technologies at a courthouse in Washington, DC, it said, but it screened no people with the devices.
The Orlando device captures a standard photographic image, the marshals said, in addition to a millimeter wave scan.
"The millimeter wave scan images captured by the Brijot machine in Orlando can in no way be described as images of 'naked' or 'undressed' people. Rather, they are pixilated, chalky, and blurred images," it stated.
The marshals said they never received any complaints about the technology prior to a complaint from the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a DC-based nonprofit organization advocating for civil liberties issues, over the Orlando issue.
In response to the controversy the Marshals Service sparked at the Justice Department, TSA emphasized in a statement August 5 that the Homeland Security Department had set firm rules to prevent the storage of any images captured by AIT devices.
"As we've stated from the beginning, TSA has not, will not and the machines cannot store images of passengers at airports. The equipment sent by the manufacturer to airports cannot store, transmit, or print images and operators at airports do not have the capability to activate any such function," TSA spokesperson Curtis 'Bob' Burns said in a Web post.
Lieberman and Collins implied that the US Marshals Services apparent insensitivity to the issue could harm the reputation of AIT devices, which have become important to airport security operations.
"Advanced imaging technology (AIT) has the potential to serve as an important screening tool at security checkpoints as it is able to identify concealed weapons, explosives, and other dangerous items that would likely go undetected by a traditional metal detector. There is understandable concern, however, over the privacy protections in place for AIT devices, as they are able to scan through clothing and capture detailed images of the bodies of those who are scanned," the senators wrote in their letter.
They also called upon the marshals to add automatic target recognition software to any AIT devices deployed by the agency.
Automatic target recognition adds an additional layer of privacy protection, they argued, by cutting the need for a person to review the AIT scans. The auto-targeting software instead highlights potentially dangerous items concealed on an individual using a "featureless human body outline," the senators said. Security officers are then able to conduct a thorough search of a suspect with a focus on the areas pinpointed by the software.
Schiphol International Airport in Amsterdam uses the auto-targeting software and TSA is reviewing it for use in the United States as well, Lieberman and Collins noted.
Joining the chair and ranking member of the homeland security committee in signing the letter were Sens. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), Thomas Carper (D-Del.), Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.).