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Government Privacy The Courts

The NYPD's X-Ray Vans (theatlantic.com) 190

An anonymous reader writes: A few years ago, we heard tales of vans outfitted by the U.S. government to hold giant X-ray scanners, which they'd use to drive around and inspect vehicles. Now, it turns out similar vans have made their way to police departments, including the NYPD. The police are unwilling to explain (PDF) how they're used, or how often. "A state court has already ruled that the NYPD has to turn over policies, procedures, and training manuals that shape uses of X-rays; reports on past deployments; information on the costs of the X-ray devices and the number of vans purchased; and information on the health and safety effects of the technology. But New York City is fighting on appeal to suppress that information and more, as if it is some kind of spy agency rather than a municipal police department operating on domestic soil, ostensibly at the pleasure of city residents."
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The NYPD's X-Ray Vans

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    Ah yes, the lovely liberal capital of the US east coast, Deblasio and Schumer heaven, spying on their liberal base! WOW, color me SHOCKED!

    • Cancer (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Roger W Moore ( 538166 ) on Wednesday October 21, 2015 @12:38AM (#50770955) Journal
      Actually I'd be less worried about the spying and more worried about the radiation dosage. X-Rays are ionizing radiation and exposure to them increases the risk of cancer. I don't know what the dosage you would get from one of these things is but if it can penetrate the metal bodywork of a car to look inside it will probably be a lot more than a typical medical X-ray.
      • Re:Cancer (Score:5, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 21, 2015 @01:19AM (#50771071)

        Adding to this, if their platforms are covert vans, that implies the imaging systems are backscatter devices, meaning they are detecting a reflected signal and not a transmitted one. To the parent, x-rays won't penetrate metal, but reflect. However if they are imaging things like people, and since x-rays aren't deflected well by us (except for our bones), then they are having to pump more radiation out of their aperture to collect enough reflected signal for an image than they would if they (like medical x-rays) were making a transmission measurement.

        Of course if word got out that they were cooking people with ionizing radiation in the name of national security, the terrorists will have won.

        • Re:Cancer (Score:5, Informative)

          by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 21, 2015 @01:28AM (#50771097)

          They are, indeed, backscatter devices. See source here [yahoo.com].

          The summary is actually wrong in claiming that these vans are just now making their way to police departments. According to this link [foxnews.com], the NYPD acknowledged using these vans at least as early as 2010. I'd really like to know how they've been used over the last five years or if there's any evidence of any additional security being provided from this surveillance.

          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by davester666 ( 731373 )

            The police feel much more secure. Does that count?

            • And the companies that sold this security snake oil to the NYPD . They feel more secure as well.
        • Re:Cancer (Score:5, Insightful)

          by Kohath ( 38547 ) on Wednesday October 21, 2015 @07:24AM (#50771939)

          New York City isn't a nation. The NYPD isn't a national security organization. They're a police department. They can't hide behind a national security justification for this.

          • If technology like this us being used to detect terrorists, it should be under DHS control, to be deployed under logged circumstances when there is a security threat. Local police have no business using it.

          • by KGIII ( 973947 )

            Nor should the police department be fighting this. Have they completely forgotten who they work for? It's not my money they're spending, but I'd be pretty pissed if they were and were then unwilling to tell me what they're doing with it. That's above and beyond the idea that they have some sort of right to keep information from the people who are paying their salary.

          • Perhaps they are owned by the bomb squad and used to x-ray bombs to determine how to proceed? Until they get back to the FOIA request, none of us know.

            • by HiThere ( 15173 )

              That would be justifiable, but barely fits with the publicly revealed information. (I.e., if it's just used by the bomb squad, someone is being intentionally misleading.)

              I would still expect it to be dangerous to the people around it in operation, but probably less so that trying to defuse an unexamined bomb.

          • by swalve ( 1980968 )
            I think the PATRIOT act changed that.
        • by sjames ( 1099 )

          Yes, they need a beam strong enough to penetrate the vehicle and still be strong enough that the x-rays that reflect from things inside can again penetrate the vehicle and register on the detector.

        • To the parent, x-rays won't penetrate metal, but reflect.

          Oh believe me they'll penetrate metal quite easily if they have enough energy - we have a calorimeter to measure photon energies in ATLAS which consists of lead and stainless steel plates. That's at an extreme energy but it's no problem to generate X-rays that will penetrate the thin sheet metal in a car if you wanted to hence the concern. You could certainly imagine building a back scatter device using higher energy photons which could penetrate the sheet metal of a van although I've no idea whether these

      • Re:Cancer (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 21, 2015 @01:34AM (#50771111)

        I'm pretty sure if you pointed a large x-ray scanner at an NYPD building you'd be arrested for grievous assault on a police officer...that's assuming you're not shot on sight. Soon we'll all have to start carrying Geiger counters to protect ourselves from the police. Not that it'd help you though - even if you could prove exposure it'd be hard to prove where the source was if it's buried inside a van. Sure, you can approach the van but chances are some other random cop will show up and demand to know what you're doing checking out vans and arrest you on suspicion of "illegal van checking-out behavior". Can't win this one.

        The RHB seems to control a lot of the license requirements here (https://www.cdph.ca.gov/programs/Pages/RadiologicHealthBranch.aspx)
        X-Ray machines are mostly medical grade devices - The devices have to be registered.
        Construction site radiation sources are presumably more strict.
        Anyone operating these machines must also be licensed.

        I'd assume the police have the requisite licenses as it's extremely unlikely there's any police exemption for this sort of tech. On the other hand we have Stingrays which probably violate all kinds of FCC emissions regulations and warrantless wiretap laws. They mostly seem to be getting away with that on the grounds of national security though and they could pull the same stunt here.

      • So . . . I now need to upgrade my tinfoil hat to a lead hat?

        I'd like to have a little pocket X-Ray detector to keep with me when I am wandering around public places. The results might be frightening . . .

      • Re:Cancer (Score:5, Informative)

        by Dunbal ( 464142 ) * on Wednesday October 21, 2015 @05:41AM (#50771675)
        This. Cops were dumb enough to give themselves testicular cancer by constantly irradiating their testicles back when laser guns first came out (by holding the gun between their legs while it was on). They will certainly be dumb enough to blast people with much more radiation than necessary with these devices. Cops are, after all, selected [politicalblindspot.com] for low IQ. [globalresearch.ca]. Let's give them a ray gun that can give people cancer! What could possibly go wrong?
      • Actually I'd be less worried about the spying and more worried about the radiation dosage. X-Rays are ionizing radiation and exposure to them increases the risk of cancer.

        In about 5 years, the very operators of this illegal equipment will start coming down with cancer. Odds are, their employers will deny them benefits and suppress any legal redress they attempt.

        In the long run, it's a dumb choice to become a Storm Trooper for an evil empire. Being a 'badass' with a badge comes with a price tag (this time

        • Except it's not just the operators. If they're pumping radiation into my house to measure how much is reflected, they are increasing my daily radiation dosage. The TSA's argument that I need to increase my radiation dosage before getting on a plane is a flimsy one, but still rock solid compared to the NYPD's "we need to drive around increasing random people's chances to develop cancer because Terrorism!" Doubly so when they tack on "and we can't be compelled to discuss anything about this program due to

          • If they really do irradiate random people, then it's unlikely that any single person will be irradiated several times. The operator is going to be present for all the radiation, and I'd bet the protective measures are inadequate.

      • Re:Cancer (Score:5, Insightful)

        by houghi ( 78078 ) on Wednesday October 21, 2015 @08:47AM (#50772271)

        I care more about the spying. Because if I get cancer, I die and that is it. If they are allowed to spy, the whole society gets cancer and then that society dies.

        That is what they mean with "Give me liberty or give me death."

        It is a pity that you think you are more important than the society that you are part of. The fact that you choose between the two means you allow them to spy. They will spy on you. They will spy on your kids. They will go further and dictate what you can and can not do.

        And all this because the risk of cancer might be a little bit higher compared to what you inhale in NYC right now?

        When a mobster asks you what knee you want to be taken away, does not mean there is a choice. You should say NEITHER!

        But please: do not say you are less worries about spying, because that makes it discusable. That makes me want to negotiate terms. And the terms of spying should not start with wether or not it will give you cancer. It should start with NEVER!

        • To the people engaging in this spying and other things, they are trying to protect their society from an invader that has learned to hide among the general populous. They feel they are protecting the very thing that you feel they are destroying. The question is, which is more tolerable to most people, and it sounds like most people don't give a damn about the spying, but don't want small incidents like 9-11 to happen every 100 years.

          • by HiThere ( 15173 )

            Or at least that's what the public officials tell us. I haven't heard very many people supporting that "most people want" from either the left OR the right. (Of course I don't listen much to the right, so I could have missed it, but it's certainly not the libertarian wing. And tech discussion groups don't exactly exclude right wingers...certainly not the free marketeers.)

      • by Nyder ( 754090 )

        Actually I'd be less worried about the spying and more worried about the radiation dosage. X-Rays are ionizing radiation and exposure to them increases the risk of cancer. I don't know what the dosage you would get from one of these things is but if it can penetrate the metal bodywork of a car to look inside it will probably be a lot more than a typical medical X-ray.

        Maybe it's time to wear radiation detectors when you go outside?

      • Actually I'd be less worried about the spying and more worried about the radiation dosage. X-Rays are ionizing radiation and exposure to them increases the risk of cancer. I don't know what the dosage you would get from one of these things is but if it can penetrate the metal bodywork of a car to look inside it will probably be a lot more than a typical medical X-ray.

        There seems to be at least three issues here and little data to sort them out with.
        One data point is $$:
        "The technology was used in Afghanistan before being loosed on U.S. streets. Each X-ray van costs an estimated $729,000 to $825,000."
        This price point is high enough that a manager is needed. Sort of like the officers that drove automobiles in the early days when the
        military thought autos special.

        X-ray imaging techniques based on Compton backscatter is likely the one involved here.
        Backscatter is not asto

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 21, 2015 @12:23AM (#50770907)

    These vans are just the latest in a long line of law enforcement abuse and complete disregard for the Constitution. The government classifies volumes of information to hide evidence of their own wrongdoing. They're "fighting on appeal to suppress information" in this case regarding potential serious public health hazards posed by their tactics. They use secret tools like stingrays to gather secret evidence which they attempt to present in secret, sealed and off the record. And in the event that an "activist judge" calls them on it, they withdraw the evidence so as not to have it revealed. They lock people up in secret detention facilities in Chicago, in America, without booking them, no Miranda rights, no access to a lawyer, such that no one but the police even knows where these people disappear to for days or weeks on end. Police are shooting and killing people weekly if not daily, acting as judge jury and executioner, and they face zero consequences.

    The police state isn't coming, the police state is here. Anyone who thinks otherwise is delusional.

    • by networkzombie ( 921324 ) on Wednesday October 21, 2015 @01:07AM (#50771039)
      Every time I'm in the airport and hear instructions over the PA to report suspicious activity I feel like I'm playing Half-life 2.
    • by trout007 ( 975317 ) on Wednesday October 21, 2015 @07:34AM (#50771985)

      We should be completely safe now that we got rid of freedom.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      The police state isn't coming, the police state is here. Anyone who thinks otherwise is delusional.

      And yet we need to ban guns and confiscate all guns in private hands, or so the Liberals who run New York would have you believe. I submit that this is precisely why private gun ownership is needed. These people need to be afraid of us, not the other way around.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    everyone involved in stop and frisk should be in prison, or just executed for treason.

    • should be in prison

      But NYC *is* the prison. [youtu.be] The mistake would be assuming that most residents aren't happy about being frisked and irradiated.

    • by fnj ( 64210 )

      everyone involved in stop and frisk should be in prison, or just executed for treason.

      Unfortunately you've got a problem in the Constitution. It defines treason very narrowly. "Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort."

      The problem is that the Constitution does not define an offense for those sworn to uphold it who in actuality flout it. Nor a process for dealing effectively with these evil, lawless bastard

  • by ranpel ( 1255408 ) on Wednesday October 21, 2015 @12:28AM (#50770933)
    I would totally download that.
  • by surfdaddy ( 930829 ) on Wednesday October 21, 2015 @12:35AM (#50770947)
    ...what they did there...
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 21, 2015 @12:38AM (#50770957)

    No worries here citizens, we're just going to let untrained people wander around shooting a giant x-ray machine at whatever they want. This is nothing to be alarmed about, please go about your daily routine as if nothing is happening. Thank you for your time.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    If I go to NYC, I'm finally going to have an excuse to buy one of these: http://www.berkeleynucleonics.com/products/model-1621M.html

  • by gavron ( 1300111 ) on Wednesday October 21, 2015 @12:50AM (#50770991)

    Every story is modded down.
    - NYPD violates constitutional tenets (0)
    - NYPD violates FOIA rules (0)
    - NYPD thinks they are a terrorist fighting organization (0)

    Dear /. editors: whomever moderated this thread shouldn't get mod points for another 30 years. I know you think you have checks and balances. So does the NYPD.

    E

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 21, 2015 @12:51AM (#50770997)

    Don't be surprised when they get an exaggerated sense of self-importance and begin to think they're above the 4th amendment.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      The NYPD, tasked with protecting the citizens of NYC from a repeat of one of the largest terrorist attacks on US soil (and by all reports the city is still high on the list of targets), has been willing to push the envelope as far as they can. It is a typical response to the mindset that has, at its core, the phrase "never again". And you will find quite a few people who are more than willing to give up liberty to achieve safety (or at least the assurance of safety from their public officials).

      Now, to be

      • by Holi ( 250190 )

        The NYPD, tasked with protecting the citizens of NYC from a repeat of one of the largest terrorist attacks on US soil .

        Well until the NYPD get's it's own air force, I am not sure how they expect to deal with planes flying into buildings. Somehow I don't think X-Ray vans are going to be much help.

  • X-Rays (Score:5, Funny)

    by AK Marc ( 707885 ) on Wednesday October 21, 2015 @12:55AM (#50771013)
    They aren't X-rays, they are Freedom-Rays.
    • They aren't X-rays, they are Freedom-Rays.

      Or F-Rays for short.

      *Officer fires an F-Ray at a pedestrian*

      Pedestrian: Ow! My sperm!

      *Officer fires the F-Ray again*

      Pedestrian: Hmmm... It didn't hurt that time.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 21, 2015 @01:09AM (#50771043)

    1) If something is in plain view, it can be evidence used to justify a search. I suppose it's a plausible interpretation that the heat something gives off could be considered in plain view when looking through an infrared camera. However, an x-ray scan is hardly plain view because it's an active scan, relying on backscatter in the case of these vans. Can any evidence collected from these vans, or evidence collected on the basis thereof, be admissible in court?

    2) Is this safe? X-rays pose a health danger, which is why precautions are taken when medical and dental x-rays are taken. What will be done to ensure that people aren't exposed to harmful radiation, especially without notice or consent?

    3) The NYPD is refusing to say what these vans are used for. If the NYPD won't say how they're being used, how do people know their privacy isn't being invaded and they're not being exposed to harmful radiation?

    4) Because these vans are being paid for with tax dollars, don't people have a right to know how they're being used? How do the people know this is a necessary expense and the taxpayers aren't being ripped off?

    5) At what point is it no longer acceptable to justify any and every form of surveillance under the excuse of terrorism? This is a tired refrain that has already been used to justify far too many abuses. Terrorism is the new communism, and I hope one day we'll be able to ridicule many of the things we've done just as we find McCarthyism and the red scare laughably absurd.

    • by AHuxley ( 892839 )
      Re: "Can any evidence collected from these vans, or evidence collected on the basis thereof, be admissible in court?"
      Drive around and the screen shows something 'different' for a substance/material on an existing detection database.
      The legal question is the long term risk of "the computer did an aggressive alert" as the only evidence could been questioned in open court. That could make defence lawyers very interested in every aspect of the methods used in open court. Computer source code requests, amount
    • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 21, 2015 @04:32AM (#50771509)

      > I suppose it's a plausible interpretation that the heat something gives off could be considered in plain view when looking through an infrared camera.

      It's not. This has already been decided by the courts.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kyllo_v._United_States

      > Kyllo v. United States, 533 U.S. 27 (2001), held that the use of a thermal imaging, or FLIR, device from a public vantage point to monitor the radiation of heat from a person's home was a "search" within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, and thus required a warrant.

    • However, an x-ray scan is hardly plain view because it's an active scan, relying on backscatter in the case of these vans.

      Physically, it's not more active than using a flashlight to illuminate a dark area. If the cops use a flashlight to find evidence, should that automatically preclude the evidence from being in plain view? A flashlight is just a source of photons, just like an x-ray source.

      Is this safe?

      "Ha ha. Prove that you got your nasty cancer from our vans, and not from radon, nuclear tests,

    • by Kohath ( 38547 )

      4. People have a right to know what their government authorities are doing regardless of whether something is paid for with tax dollars. It's not a funding question. Government in a free country exists to serve the public. They can't be allowed to hide what they're doing. The police department isn't the CIA. Secrecy is unjustifiable.

    • by houghi ( 78078 )

      1) It will be used to start looking for a plausable cause. e.g. if they see you have something in your car that you should not have, they will stop you, say they smelled beer and do a seach and then find whatever they saw in the first time without all the problems of proving that is ho they found it.

      2) It is to keep people safe. If some people get killed, so be it. The people are safer, because we say they are safer

      3) Your privacy is invaded. That has been clear. The thing is that nobody realy cares enough

    • 1) If something is in plain view, it can be evidence used to justify a search. I suppose it's a plausible interpretation that the heat something gives off could be considered in plain view when looking through an infrared camera. However, an x-ray scan is hardly plain view because it's an active scan, relying on backscatter in the case of these vans. Can any evidence collected from these vans, or evidence collected on the basis thereof, be admissible in court?

      This is why they don't want to give any records of how and when these are used (and I'll bet you they'll fight the release of anything resembling *details* even harder). Right now, they can zap you with the machine, and then have an officer (possibly even an officer who isn't in on the trick) investigate you for "suspicious activity". When they detain, search, and find whatever the X-ray saw, it'll be recorded as based on the officer's judgement. The X-ray won't be mentioned, meaning the issue will never co

  • by Anonymous Coward

    There are ppl. with previous occupational exposures to what is considered to be high-level exposures of radiation today, that have to carefully monitor and restrict such things as dental or medial X-rays (ie. exposure to 60Co due to working around a leaking medical source).

    What provisions exist to alert the "police" to these people, and what steps do they take to mitigate aiming their X-ray at these persons?

    I would suspect none, so the ethics of this "operation" need to be called into serious question.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    The court ruled these scanners illegal in France, where they were being used to scan vehicles for people. You can't Xray people without their permission, and the makers claims of typical 'low' doses equivalent to an arm x-ray was what an illegal immigrant would get if inside a metal tank inside a metal truck. Without all that metal it was a lot higher.

    http://news2.onlinenigeria.com/world/21244-french-ban-x-ray-scans-for-illegal-immigrants-as-radiation-makes-them-too-dangerous.html

  • X-rays are ionizing radiation, after all.
    And how strong do they need to be to penetrate the metal body of a car?

  • Funny (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 21, 2015 @01:22AM (#50771085)

    I used to care about what was happening in US, As sadly it affects the rest of the world quite severely, luckily not as much anymore (with the rise of other nations) but week after week we read stories about the Govt or agencies stepping over the democracy line.

    The common response is well when it goes too far we will stand up as put an end to it.

    When?.. the answer is never, freedom is not something you even recognize now and wouldn't know what do with it if you had it, even a recent headline about the Drone programme targets being 90% civilian (which is a war crime) apparently is has been clarified that all military aged males in a combat zone are considered combatants even if they have no connections or armaments so just being alive makes you a target. wasn't enough for any action to be taken let alone DC cops driving around in vans X Raying whatever they feel like or the weird idea that americans have the right to do whatever they like. (manifest destiny)

    For gods sake, stand up and put an end to this ridiculous farce and become people again before it's too late.

  • "New York man found guilty in plot to kill Muslims with X-ray device"

    CBS news article [cbsnews.com] describes how an upstate New York man was convicted Friday of plotting to kill Muslims with a mobile X-ray device by a jury that rejected his lawyer's argument that he was entrapped by the FBI.

    SO - if YOU do it, you go to jail, if the COPS do it, it's crime fighting. Hmmmm.....yeah....

    • To be fair, the police DO get extra privileges and powers over ordinary citizens. If you see someone speeding on a highway, you can't just order them to pull over. If you see someone steal something extremely valuable, you can't lock him up in your basement for the night. If you have good reason to suspect your neighbor is up to no good, no judge will let you bang down his door and search his house for wrongdoings.

      That being said, cases like this X-Ray van are where the police take their extra power and

      • To be fair, the police DO get extra privileges and powers over ordinary citizens. If you see someone speeding on a highway, you can't just order them to pull over. If you see someone steal something extremely valuable, you can't lock him up in your basement for the night. If you have good reason to suspect your neighbor is up to no good, no judge will let you bang down his door and search his house for wrongdoings.

        The traffic rules are a consequence of treating the roads as the government's private property—if you don't follow their rules, they can order you off their roads, and if you don't comply then you're trespassing. A private citizen could do the same with their own privately-owned roads.

        Apart from that, use of special police powers requires (or at least, should require) a warrant—as in a document stating why this infringement of a citizen's rights was warranted. In the absence of a warrant, a law

  • Yes, they overreach in panicked overreaction to past incidents. But they are in a tough position as a "mere" city police force that winds up with national-security level responsibilities. *All* LEO and security people overreact because "If we mess up people die" and "Not on my watch!" ; NYC has the UN General Assembly with dozens of world leaders (and the normal UN with international officials all year long), other major high-publicity events that would be tempting targets, and every day a huge and dense
  • There's a truck weigh station in Kentucky, on I-75, where truck drivers have to pass through what can only be an x-ray scanner. I wonder how much of a dose you get each time you pass through? I've also had my truck x-rayed at the border by the Americans, (it's always my home team, the Americans, giving the hassles at the border), but at least I was allowed to exit the truck. They did not find the six-pack of Canadian beer I was smuggling.

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