Cops in USA to drive around in pornoscannerwagons, covertly irradiating people and looking through their cars and clothes

American cops are set to join the US military in deploying American Science & Engineering's Z Backscatter Vans, or mobile backscatter radiation x-rays. These are what TSA officials call "the amazing radioactive genital viewer," now seen in airports around America, ionizing the private parts of children, the elderly, and you (yes you).

These pornoscannerwagons will look like regular anonymous vans, and will cruise America's streets, indiscriminately peering through the cars (and clothes) of anyone in range of its mighty isotope-cannon. But don't worry, it's not a violation of privacy. As AS&E's vice president of marketing Joe Reiss sez, "From a privacy standpoint, I’m hard-pressed to see what the concern or objection could be."

You know, I never looked at that way. I guess that's why I'm not the VP of marketing and he's getting the big bucks.

It would also seem to make the vans mobile versions of the same scanning technique that’s riled privacy advocates as it’s been deployed in airports around the country. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) is currently suing the DHS to stop airport deployments of the backscatter scanners, which can reveal detailed images of human bodies. (Just how much detail became clear last May, when TSA employee Rolando Negrin was charged with assaulting a coworker who made jokes about the size of Negrin’s genitalia after Negrin received a full-body scan.)

“It’s no surprise that governments and vendors are very enthusiastic about [the vans],” says Marc Rotenberg, executive director of EPIC. “But from a privacy perspective, it’s one of the most intrusive technologies conceivable.”

Also: "the vans do have the capability of storing images."

Full-Body Scan Technology Deployed In Street-Roving Vans


  1. Prediction: new cottage industry of tinfoil underwear to go with all our snazzy tinfoil hats.

    1. with big-eyed cartoon character shapes on them, which all the cool kids will wear.

      to be featured on BB, March 2014.

    2.  How about clothing with a ‘built in’ arsenal? Regular clothing with imbedded invisible radiation reflecting material that looks like you’ve strapped on enough fire power to take down a small army.

      1. How about just offensive messages? Like, as much as I am pro-passive and peaceful protest, I’m not willing to be actually shot to get my point across.

  2. Can we at least have a referendum about pornoscannerwagon nomenclature? I’m partial to “pornomobile,” though I would also be open to “porn buggy.”

      1. That works for me. Several years ago a legislator where I lived tried to pass a law that would impose a fine on anyone who watches porn in their minivan or other vehicle so that it’s visible to people in other vehicles.

        This immediately prompted the question “How often does that happen?” But regardless of how often it happens “pornomobile” or “porn buggy” would seem to be more applicable to people watching porn in their vehicles rather than police (or anyone else) looking through the clothes of pedestrians.

    1. How about something that also includes the “cancer” part of what these things do?

    2. As a porn producer I am offended that my product would be associated with these liberty-stealing bandits. At least the people who work for me KNOW they’re being photographed naked. 

  3. I’m sorry, no. Not unless they put MASSIVE signage around whatever town or city they plan on using this. Signs indicating that being in the area will expose you to higher than average amounts of radiation. Just like it’s done in hospitals. In fact, we ALL should get dosimeters to determine how much radiation we’re getting from INSANE ideas like this. Another idea is to make it so the INTERIOR of the vehicle ALSO get irradiated, therefore making the police unions against this…

    1. The interior of the vans are likely as dangerous or more dangerous than the areas being scanned.

      There is medical evidence that operators who stand around the machines are exposed to a lot of ionizing x-rays compared to people who go through just once to get onto the planes.

      While it’s utterly despicable to do this kind of scanning at all, there is significant risk posed to the operators.

      Airport scanners have been shown to emit very high levels of ionizing radiation outside of the sample chamber.  Higher than what people are exposed to inside the chamber.  I believe it’s simply because the companies manufacturing these have nobody to keep them honest.  All medical x-ray systems have to pass the FDA, but a machine that’s designed for nonmedical imaging is allowed to expose everyone around to the same radiation levels as a CAT scanner just because it “enhances our perception of feeling secure”.

      It makes me want to vomit.

      1. The operator at least volunteered for their position, and idk maybe they’ll give them lead lined underwear. But they consented to operate the machines – but our consent or lack thereof to being “scanned” is apparently irrelevant.

        1. They should have to wear entire lead-lined suits, from head to toe.  Which would probbly weight a couple hundred pounds – but, you know, it’s for police officers’ safety, so is it really worth quibbling about price or comfort?

      2.  Is the federal government not subject to OSHA rules?

        Because anyone who works with ionizing radiation is required to wear a dosimeter that gets checked regularly, and yes, there are rules about how much radiation you can expose either workers or the public to. 

      3.  It’s time to get the FDA guidelines changed as well. My guess is when they were written, there were very few “non-medical but used on humans” x-ray devices. Now that we have machines in many more places, it’s time to change it to ‘human imaging’ and not ‘medical imaging’.

  4. Aw, on just in time for the 4th of July, our celebration of freedom.  Ha ha ha.  How appropriate.

  5. Prediction: Mobile Backscatter X-Ray Squad will trigger alert by Mobile Radiation Detection Squad, causing them to arrest each other and thereby keeping us safe from the DHS threat. Mission Accomplished!

    1. Raul Castrol, the 96 year-old former Governor of Arizona, was detained and kept in a sweltering car during 97° weather a week ago because the Border Patrol tagged him as radioactive.

      1. It is somehow wonderful that a former governor of Arizona has a name one letter removed from that of the president of Cuba.

  6. Prediction: subsequent analysis of vehicle logs reveals that mobile scanner units seldom visit high-crime areas, but spend many hours driving through areas of the city with the highest concentration of young women, including repeated sweeps in the vicinity of college campuses and high schools.

  7. I don’t see the problem, they marketed X-ray glasses in the back of comic books for years and no one complained about those.

    1. Back then, you were just a kid.  Now you’re a suspect.  And so are your kids.

  8. I hereby demand that whenever Mr. Reiss speaks in public from now on that he is required to wear nothing but a suit made of transparent plastic. I’d be hard-pressed to see what objection he may have to that demand.

  9. “From a privacy standpoint, I’m hard-pressed to see what the concern or objection could be.”

    IANAL, so help me out. From a privacy standpoint, shouldn’t random x-ray scanning be considered illegal search? Without probable cause or a search warrant, how is it legal? This is without even considering the extra radiation exposure angle.

    EDIT: Having read TFA, I see that this is exactly the subject of the EPIC suit. Never mind…

    1. “From a privacy standpoint, I’m hard-pressed to see what the concern or objection could be.”

      From the human-being standpoint, I’m hard-pressed to figure out what the fuck that thing sitting on top of your shoulders is, Mr. Riess.

    1.  If logic applies (which I know it doesn’t here in the USA), I’d say the assholes in the van are at a much higher risk for reckless endangerment, since they know they’re exposing a minor to ionizing radiation without consent of the parents or the minor, and without any adequate study to determine the real output levels of the machines.

      Essentially they’re in the same trouble as if they had tied the kid up and forced him to smoke a pipe.  There’s no exact prediction of what will happen to the kid, but it was forced exposure to a known health hazard without being informed and without consent of any kind.

      Totally barbaric.

  10. In some not-so-distant future, parents will warn their children to stay away from the creepy, unpredictably violent policemen.

    1.  There are already plenty of solidly middle class parents who tell their kids not to talk to the police.

    2. In some not-so-distant future, parents will warn their children to stay away from the creepy, unpredictably violent policemen.

      You mean like next Sunday AD last Sunday AD c. 1970?

      1.  Nah, I want  underwear that clearly reads “F*** YOU!” when scanned by xray tech like this, but is otherwise invisible to anyone else :)

  11. I suppose I’m going to have carry a Geiger counter just to know if I’ve been scanned or not.  This is intolerable nonsense!

    1. Oooh!  I think I just found a new sideline.  Inexpensive, wearable radiation detectors – specially calibrated to detect this sort of thing.

  12. I know I can’t fully block the scan, but can I at least jam it (or would that violate FCC code)?

    1. Find some lead based paint.  Paint silhouettes of, say, neatly stacked mortar shells and a disassembled mortar on the sides of your car, maybe a case or two of grenades.  Paint over it with normal auto paint, then go find the nearest Scan-O-van.  Make sure to pick a day when you have lots of time.

  13. “You know, I never looked at that way. I guess that’s why I’m not the VP of marketing and he’s getting the big bucks.”
    Not saying AS&E’s VP of marketing is a saint, but Cory, you need to stop selectively editing — you’re not helping make Boing Boing a bastion of journalistic integrity.
    The statement made was in response to the concern that a person’s private parts would be easily recognizable: to that, the VP specifically pointed out that the resolution of the machines wasn’t as refined as the units deployed in airports.
    You’d look a lot less like Rupert Murdoch if you included enough context to such quotes that the overall meaning doesn’t get distorted.

  14. Non medical personnel operating a radioactive x-ray machine in public places without population knowledge?

    WHAT COULD (not) GO WRONG?  

  15.  Just brand them Freedom Vans and the PR problem is solved. No one could object to a Freedom Van, it’d be like hating kittens.

    1. “There are men in unmarked vans driving around town, irradiating your children and perving at their naked little bodies… time for a lynchin’!”

  16. They have had these at the US-Canada border for at least a few weeks. I came across the border a couple weeks ago and was “randomly” selected. I had to pull over to the side in a line of other selected cars. All occupants of the lined up cars were told to stand a significant distance away. 

    They did a quick physical search (which is really annoying since they tell you to go fifty feet away before rummaging around inside your car – normally when they search your car you stand there and watch), and then one of these porno wagons came out and drove slowly along both sides of the line of cars. There were a couple of customs guys standing with the crowd talking to us, and they said something like they just got these and have to justify them by using them. 

    One of the other people started complaining to the customs guy, saying there’s some sort of conspiracy against him. Not the smartest thing to do in a constitution-free zone, but the customs guy just laughed him off.

    At no point was it explained what was going on, but I figured it was something like this. Good to know I was right. At least they’re nice enough to ask you to get out of your car before irradiating it.

    1. “There were a couple of customs guys standing with the crowd talking to us, and they said something like they just got these and have to justify them by using them.”

      Well, that’s about the most asinine way of thinking about it. The US has nukes too…
      Just because you have it, using it isn’t always right.

      1.  we also have a huge military budget, its not like we have been continuously at war since WW2…right?

        1.  ^ doesn’t know if this is sarcasm or if austinhamman doesn’t know we actually have been in a constant state of war since WWII.

      2. Yep… the other people laughed, but I felt sick to the stomach when he said that!

      1. Nothing you can do about it when they’re holding you at the border. Don’t travel to the US even by passing through Canada first.

  17. They can purchase the vans all they want, they might even drive around blast people with the back scatter x-rays (or whatever. I have exactly zero understanding of the science behind these things). However, the Supreme Courts current ruling on technological surveillance would almost certainly consider any evidence obtained as a result of using one of these things on the street (and without a warrant obviously) to be Constitutionally barred. Why? Because under the 4th Amendment, a search has occurred anytime someone has a reasonable expectation of privacy which is violated by a state actor (again, without a warrant). While people are generally considered to have a lower expectation of privacy in their automobiles (for a bunch of reasons not really worth getting into, although wikipedia has a pretty good section on this) they still generally have a reasonable expectation of privacy. There are (always) exceptions to this rule, for instance, when someone has something that is obviously illegal “in plain sight” (see wikipedia for info about the plain sight doctrine if you like), but again, not super worth getting into it here.
    So, some might be concerned that there is no “search” here because the police (or whomever) are just looking, and not actually touching stuff etc.
    However, the Supreme Court has already ruled on an issue very similar to this one in kind of a super interesting case where police, or the DEA, or somebody, suspected a person of growing illicit substances in his home. So the officers parked outside of his home, and pointed some kind of heat-sensing camera / doohickey at it, which revealed that the defendant was using a bunch of heat lamps. They then used this information to obtain a warrant and, surprise, lots of illegal drugs in the house. In a Scalia opinion, the majority said this behavior by police was not ok, and that a search had occurred anytime people use technology which is not available to the general public to look someplace a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy.

    My point being, this would be almost certainly completely unconstitutional except in some limited circumstances such as administrative searches (airport, border, some others, this is kind of another topic altogether), and maybe if the government had an extremely compelling case for some other very specific and very limited reason (again, not worth getting into here).

    To sum up, if a person was driving down the street, and police pointed this thing at them, and found something illegal, it would almost certainly not be usable against them in court, and anything found as a result of the improper discovery (ie. we saw that you had illegal item X, then we searched you, and discovered illegal items A, B, and C) would be “fruit of the poisonous tree” (see wikipedia if you are interested) and would be similarly tossed out of court.

    Finally, that person would very likely have a claim against the government actor for violation of civil rights, and maybe even arguably some kind of health damage claim based in tort because of the x-rays (a little less likely).

    So yea, super fun to get all huffy about this, but I wouldn’t take a dollars to donuts bet that these things would ever be used outside of some weird context like port searches, and that they would practically never be used in any general criminal trial. Obviously just my opinion.

    1. Yes, the infrared scanners pointed at pot-growing houses is a clear precedent. Evidence from those scanners were unconstitutional and evidence from these traveling pornoscanners would also be unconstitutional.

      You might also get the pornoscanners stopped based on health & safety grounds since they dose you with radiation as opposed to the infrared scanners which are passive. The TSA gets away with using pornoscanners because you can opt out of them in favor of a bodily search and because flying is considered optional. I’m not saying the TSA’s pornoscanners are definitely unsafe, just that there’s insufficient information to consider them safe.

      1. Even if every case gets tossed out of court, it supports the police infrastructure and provides them with reasons to buy more unnecessary equipment.

        1. I suppose police might purchase anything despite the fact that they would probably not be very effective crime fighting tools when analyzed under a cost / benefit analysis, but then, that would seem to cover a lot of purchases made by law enforcement institutions. I’m just pleased that we (as a society) probably won’t be seeing zillions of new criminal prosecutions based on evidence gathered from these things (at least not under current Supreme Court rulings).

          Also, Extra88, as an interesting (to me anyways) aside, different rules apply to airport searches, as they are considered “administrative searches”.

    2. sounds like if the technology for backscattering x-rays became available to the general public it would no longer be a violation.

      1.  Hah, yea, that ruling… I don’t know, I’ve sort of thought about it some off and on for the last couple of years and I *think* that ruling was the majority’s way of getting around problems where police saw stuff “in plain sight”, but were using binoculars or something similar (as opposed to using just the naked eye); which is a practice that has long been allowed by the Court(as has using a helicopter to fly low over an enclosed, and entirely private backyard, and all of those kind of funny related cases).  I *think* that if the Court had a similar case where you have a camera that can see through walls after the technology had become commonplace (ie. the same facts as before, except now everyone has a heat vision camera), the Court would just fall back on the reasonable expectation of privacy trench, and not allow it. But, you know, who knows what some future Court will do? I do believe this problem will definitely come before the Court again sometime in the next decade or two, as technology gets cheaper and more powerful.

    3.  While it cant be used as evidence in court, the observations of the operators can be used as evidence of possible wrong doing in order to obtain a warrant.

      1.  Hi Acree, I respectfully disagree with your understanding of the 4th Amendment in this context. While I do agree that generally if someone has contraband in plain sight, then the state actor (police, or whomever) may seize the item without a warrant if they already have lawful access to that item (lots of complicated examples, an easy one is if police have a warrant for a person’s arrest, which allows them to enter, but not search the arresstee’s home. While there, they see an illegal item in plain view next to the arresstee).
        If the police do not have lawful access to the item, then they may use the observation in a “probable cause affidavit” (although different jurisdictions call this different things) in support of granting a warrant (Again, tons of exceptions here, but not worth getting into really) -I believe this is the sort of thing you are talking about. However, in an instance where a state actor is using some kind of high-tech tomfoollery to see items which are not in “plain sight”, but are subjectively understood by the person carrying the item to be not displayed to the world, and that expectation or understanding is objectively reasonable, then using the high-tech doodad constitutes a search for 4th Amendment purposes.  So, yea, if a person is driving down the road with something illegal in their hands, and an officer sees it because it is poking out the window, then the item would be subject to the plain view doctrine (and the officer could discuss seeing in his application for a warrant). If the illegal item was not exposed to plain view, and was only detected by the police because of the x-ray future device, then the the observation would not be a valid basis for the support of probable cause (ie. the officer could not use his knowledge, which was improperly obtained, to support the issuance of a warrant). This is all part of the “fruit of the poisounous tree” doctrine, which was created to keep state actors from doing shady stuff like x-raying everyone all the time, and similar unlawful searches without using a warrant (administrative searches aside).

        Honestly, in my view this (and the Miranda rulings) are actually one of the more clear and understandable Supreme Court decisions regarding federal criminal procedure. I would be figuratively shocked if this problem (x-ray  vans in public) even made it on to a crim law exam, much less into actual use(under current law anyways).

        Finally, in case if it is not already obvious, I am discussing these issues extremely generally, and there are a variety of exceptions and so forth that are super interesting, but probably not appropriate in this forum.

    1.  Just use a microwave oven with the side cut off. It’s not like the electronics will be shielded.

  18. Poro-O-Scan driver:  “Mobile 41, you there?”

    Mobile 41:  “Roger”

    POS “Got a white 2010 Ford Econoline van, Kansas plate 012-309, headed south on the state highway”

    M41: “I can be there in five.  Bad driver?”

    POS: “Not sure what that was.  He’s got something in the back under the bed”

    M41: “Thanks POS, M41 out.”

    M41, ten minutes later:  “Sir, I noticed that your driving seems a little weak today.  Is there some reason for that?”

  19. It feels really awkward when I am just as outraged as you are, and I’m forced to agree with someone who for all intents and purposes sounds like he’s standing on a street corner in a clapboard screaming at people walking by.

    What happened to drawing upon your usually substantial research and knowledge of these subjects to explain straightforwardly what is wrong with something, and let the reader use their own brain to be outraged? It was a lot easier to read than writing like you just got fired from Fox News for your lack of subtlety in commanding the reader what conclusions to draw.

  20. So what if you have an implanted medical device, like a defibrillator, that is not supposed to be exposed to airport scanners?  So they randomly blast you with radiation and accidentally switch your life saving device off?

    1. My non-implanted insulin pump is not supposed to the airport scanners. I was wondering the same thing…

      And I’m not looking forward to my trip to Serbia next week, FWIW…

    2. Such devices are not supposed to be exposed to metal detectors and the like, as they produce an electromagnetic field that could potentially interfere with the device. Backscatter X-ray does not affect them.

      1. not true. the manufacturer of my insulin pump says keep it away from magnetics and xrays, including backscatter. i wear the same model pump as a teenaged girl who made the news when the TSA broke her pump by scanning it. it affects the calibration in possibly fatal ways

        1. Makes me wonder if (like a smoke detector) it uses a small radioisotope source as a way to analyze body fluids. A bit like a tiny gas chromatograph. If so, then external radiation could mess with the way the insulin pump works.

  21. Slowly, incrementally your USA is turning into a police state. And all you can do is post mildly funny quips.

    1. Slowly, incrementally your USA is turning into a police state. And all you can do is post mildly funny quips.


      Slowly, incrementally your USA is turning and turning in the widening gyre.

      Is that funny enough for you?

  22. Look for these vans at your next protest march. Suspicious objects on people, another reason to crack some skulls.

    If the authorities really want to look at my little guy all they need to do is legalize public nudity. It’ll cost much less than these vans.

    1.  And if they are scanning crowds of protesters they will likely wave any safety considerations in the interest of “security” right? I mean if you protest anything the government does who cares what happens to you down the road.
      I sincerely hope someone can get this sort of tech banned before new forms of cancer are discovered in the first people who get hit with this stuff unknowingly.

  23. In the forbes comments,I was pleased to see someone question what right the ANSI had to determine what are safe levels of radiation.

  24. I’ve met a few people like this guy in the video: so totally immersed in what they are doing, that they are unable to step back and take a look at the bigger picture.

  25. 2 questions:

    1. what is the range, do these look into people’s homes/houes as well?

    2. does this mean google street view is getting an x-ray mode? :-)

  26. So, how do I print “get a warrant, you motherfucking jackbooted thug” on the side of my car in a way that’s clearly visible to the pornoscanner operator, but not to the unaided eye?

  27. It is simple, get in front of this piece of crap van and slam on the brakes.  They will be at fault and they will have to replace a VERY EXPENSIVE VEHICLE and EQUIPMENT.

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