Customs Expands Body Search X-Ray Plan

Customs Expands Body Search X-Ray Plan
Posted by FoM on March 28, 2000 at 22:45:11 PT
But Civil Libertarians See Privacy Violations 
Source: APBNews
A U.S. Customs Service plan to expand use of an X-ray device that can see beneath a person's clothing and undergarments is raising questions about whether the scan can -- or should -- replace pat-down searches to detect illegal drugs, weapons and other contraband. 
Though the BodySearch scan is seen by some as less intrusive than having a Customs inspector running hands over a suspect's body, civil libertarians warn that the images are detailed enough to constitute a serious privacy violation. Additionally, the new device is not powerful enough to detect drug-filled vials or packets that have been swallowed -- so suspects still could be subject to a medical X-ray or body cavity search. Critics of the nation's drug interdiction policies say the BodySearch X-ray -- at $125,000 a unit -- is a waste of money, because only a small fraction of the drugs that enter U.S. borders are smuggled through Customs. Coming to an airport near you? At present, the BodySearch scan is used only for international air passengers entering the United States via six airports: Hartsfield in Atlanta, O'Hare International in Chicago, Houston Intercontinental, Los Angeles International, Miami International and John F. Kennedy International in New York. The device is being installed in about 20 other major airports nationwide. "We had received a lot of complaints about pat-downs," said Dean Boyd, a U.S. Customs Service spokesman. "The BodySearch gives a choice that is not so intrusive." 'Dim and unattractive' images But Gregory Nojeim, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union's (ACLU) national office, warned that it is not an ideal solution. "An electronic strip search is not an advance in passenger privacy," Nojeim said. The images are so graphic that "even a person's navel is apparent," he said. "If you saw the pictures -- no one would want to see them, with so much real pornography on the Internet," said Amitai Etzioni, professor of social sciences at George Washington University, and author of The Limits of Privacy (Basic Books, 1999). "The [BodySearch] images are dim and unattractive." In fact, identifying features -- such as hair, skin color and facial features such as moles, scars and mustaches -- are not visible. And when the image is projected on the machine's video-display terminal, it creates a distorted fun-house effect that depicts the body as shorter and stockier than it is. As with a pat-down search, the scan is performed by a Customs inspector of the same sex as the suspect. In addition, Customs inspectors are required to get a supervisor's approval as well as the suspect's written consent before the scan is performed. Etzioni feels this protocol protects an individual's privacy. Most People Choose Pat-Down: In any case, when given the choice, most people choose the pat-down, "especially smugglers -- they may assume [contraband] will be missed on a pat-down," Boyd said. "Getting as far as a pat-down is rare in the big scheme," Boyd said. According to Customs estimates, of the 75 million international air passengers who passed through Customs checkpoints in 1999, one in every 2,000 was selected for a "secondary search." Some dispute those figures and accuse Customs inspectors of disproportionately singling out women and minorities for searches. In response to allegations of racial profiling by the agency, a House Ways and Means subcommittee held hearings on passenger-selection criteria and frequency of searches in May 1999. A Matter of 'Reasonable Suspicion' The hearings put thousands of Customs inspectors on the hot seat. "[Customs] conducts far too many searches on private people," Nojeim said. "The racial profiling aspect magnifies the problem." Recognizing drug traffickers is not easy, and it boils down to a matter of reasonable suspicion, Boyd said. "There is no profile of a smuggler," he said. "[They] come in all shapes and sizes, every race, gender, nationality and all ages." He added, "Every scenario you can imagine has been tried. We've seen every[one] from priests to handicapped people to children." He cited a recent case in which the family of a 9-year-old boy used him to transport drugs from Colombia to Miami; the drugs were secreted in a hand-held computer animation game. The boy had made the trip many times before he was caught. $9 Million to Be Spent on Devices: Outfitting airports with the BodySearch machines represents "a small portion of our overall drug budget," Boyd said, adding that $17.8 billion was allocated in fiscal year 2000 for efforts to prevent drugs from entering our borders. Out of that amount, $9 million will go toward buying the BodySearch devices. But Mark Greer, executive director of Drug Sense, said the new X-ray machines "will have zero effect on the availability of drugs" and that they are "a monumental waste [of money] when multiplied by the number of airports in the U.S." Drug Sense is one of 75 national organizations, including the ACLU, the American Public Health Association and the National Mental Health Association, that characterize the "war on drugs" as a failure. ACLU: Real Trafficking in Trucks: The real drug trafficking occurs in trucks and ship holds, Nojeim said. He noted that in testimony at the May 20 hearing, the Customs Service confirmed that it seized 1.35 million pounds of drugs in 1998, receiving only 1,000 pounds -- less than one-tenth of 1 percent -- through airport searches. But drug couriers, or mules, are the method of choice when it comes to certain drugs, Boyd said. "The majority of heroin Customs has seized has been from commercial passengers. Also, Ecstasy is going through the roof, coming in on luggage or taped to [passengers'] bodies." Could Be Used To Thwart Terrorists: Etzioni points out that guns, bombs and other contraband are a greater concern than drugs. "The machines are a godsend," Etzioni said. "There are terrorists coming from Canada with explosives. Nobody wants to shrug their shoulders at that." Nonetheless, Nojeim wants "to bring the Fourth Amendment back into the airports." "It's a bedrock principle of privacy that the government not conduct a strip search -- whether electronic or by hand -- unless there is probable cause of crime." Etzioni is not sympathetic to this argument. "Are we going to throw our doors completely open, or do we have a duty to protect our people?" he asks. "People have no right to enter the country. It's a privilege." Jane A. Zanca is an correspondent in Georgia.By Jane A. Zanca New York ( Published: March 27, 2000  ęCopyright 2000 APB Online, Inc. 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