Senators rebuke Marshals Service on full-body scans

Democratic and Republican politicians press U.S. Marshals Service on surreptitious recording of millimeter wave body scans performed on Americans who enter a federal courthouse.

Declan McCullagh
Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
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Six U.S. senators delivered a sharp rebuke to the U.S. Marshals Service on Thursday, saying that they were "disturbed" to learn that thousands of images produced by full-body scanners at security checkpoints were surreptitiously recorded.

The bipartisan group of senators demanded a detailed explanation from the Marshals Service, which installed the millimeter wave system at the security checkpoint of at a Florida courthouse. (See CNET's earlier article about the Marshals Service admitting the recording took place.)

A letter the politicians sent to Marshals Service director John Clark asks him to "identify any other locations where the U.S. Marshals Service is using whole body imaging technology, whether or not the images from scans taken at any of those locations are also being stored, and, if they are being stored, the reasons for retaining these images."

The letter was signed by Homeland Security Committee chairman Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who caucuses with Democrats; Susan Collins (R-Maine); Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii); Thomas Carper (D-Del.); Saxby Chambliss, (R-Ga.), and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.).

Body scanners can penetrate clothing to provide a highly detailed image so accurate that critics have likened it to a virtual strip search. Technologies vary, with millimeter wave systems capturing fuzzier images, and backscatter X-ray machines able to show precise anatomical detail.

Eric Thompson, a U.S. Marshals supervisor in Orlando, told the Orlando Sentinel that there are no real privacy worries with stored data: "Everybody knows they're being recorded when they come into the courthouse."

The Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, recently obtained a letter (PDF) from the Marshals Service admitting to storing images through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

"I really think the body scanner program is in trouble," EPIC Director Marc Rotenberg told CNET on Thursday. "It was never very well thought out. It's easy to defeat--through explosives in body cavities--and the privacy and health risks are real."

William Bordley, an associate general counsel with the Marshals Service, acknowledged in the letter that "approximately 35,314 images...have been stored on the Brijot Gen2 machine" used in the Orlando, Fla., federal courthouse. In addition, Bordley wrote, a Millivision machine was tested in the Washington, D.C. federal courthouse, but it was sent back to the manufacturer.

A spokesman for the Marshals Service did not immediately respond to questions on Thursday.

EPIC has filed a separate lawsuit asking a federal judge to grant an immediate injunction pulling the plug on the Transportation Security Administration's body scanning program. On August 5, three senators wrote a letter to Homeland Security and TSA asking for an independent review of X-ray body scanning machines used in airports.

TSA representatives say the agency does not store images of travelers passing through airport security checkpoints. A February 2010 letter (PDF) shows that the TSA requires airport body scanners it purchases to be able to store and transmit images for "testing, training, and evaluation purposes," but the letter also says checkpoint workers "have neither the technical capability nor the authority" to activate that feature.

Update at 7:45 a.m. PDT Friday: A spokesman for the Marshals Service responded to a request for comment, saying: "The only comment we are making on this issue is that we have received the letter and we will be responding appropriately."