After three years' worth of court battles, Propublica has won a court order forcing the NYPD to release details of its X-ray surveillance vans, whose radiation risk has never been independently studied or verified (much like the notorious pornoscanners, which were supposedly harmless, but which turned out to be sources of dangerous radiation).
The NYPD's lawyers managed to forestall the disclosure of its records by waving its hands in the air and shouting "terrorism, terrorism!"
"It's not that the radiation from these machines is very high," Peter Rez, an Arizona State University physicist, told ProPublica in 2012. "It's 'Does the benefit outweigh the risk?' "
The long-term health risks of low levels of radiation are unknown. But the National Academy has taken the position that the danger comes from cumulative exposure and that even trivial amounts increase the risk of cancer.
The X-ray vans—which reportedly cost between $729,000 and $825,000 each—are designed to find organic materials such as drugs and explosives. The rays penetrate the metal in a car or concrete in a building and scatter back to a detector, producing an image of what's inside. The van can scan while driving alongside a row of shipping containers or while parked as cars pass by. Customs agencies around the world have used them to fight drug and human smuggling.
But most Federal Drug Administration regulations for medical X-rays do not apply to security equipment, leaving the decision of when and how to use the scanners up to law enforcement agencies such as the NYPD.
The NYPD's policies are of particular interest because many agencies have adopted strict policies to address potential harm from backscatter X-ray scans. When Customs began using the vans extensively in 2010, the agency prohibited their use on occupied vehicles and required that people get out of the vehicles before they were X-rayed.
Judge Orders NYPD to Release Records on X-ray Vans [Michael Grabell/Pro Publica]