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Group slams airport naked body scanners

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An electronic privacy group has urged a federal appeals court to limit the use of full body scanners at US airports, arguing the machines are an unprecedented intrusion into the affairs of millions of Americans.

In a 55-page brief filed on Monday, the Electronic Privacy Information Center accused the Department of Homeland Security's Transportation Security Administration of unilaterally mandating the use of the machines as the primary screening technique. By allowing government contractors to capture images of travelers' naked bodies, the policy violates a raft of federal laws, as well as Constitutional protections prohibiting unreasonable search and seizure, it argued.

“The TSA subjects all air travelers to the most extensive, invasive search available at the outset,” EPIC attorneys wrote. “The TSA searches are also far more invasive than necessary to detect weapons. Alternative technologies, including passive millimeter wave scanners and automated threat detection, detect weapons with a less invasive search.”

The machines run on an embedded version of Microsoft's security-challenged Windows XP operating system, and they also come equipped with an ethernet port and USB access, making them ripe for hackers. That means travelers can never be sure their images won't be intercepted by unauthorized parties. Some travelers have also questioned whether the machines expose them to unsafe levels of radiation.

What's more, the machines fail to detect many types of bombs, a fact that was brought home on Christmas of 2009, when Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is alleged to have snuck powdered explosives through an airport that used the scanners. His attempt to detonate the package in his underwear while his plane approached Detroit failed, but not because of the technology.

Despite the questions about the legality, safety and effectiveness of the scanners, the federal government went ahead in April 2009 with plans to make them the primary method of screening passengers. Previously, they were a secondary measure. Government officials have refused to follow the Administrative Procedure Act, which requires them to provide the public with the opportunity to express its views on fundamental changes and take them into account in final rules, critics argue.

A PDF of EPIC's brief is here. ®

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