Senators ask Marshals Service why it stores images of full-body scans

Lawmakers say the practice of retaining the images taken during screening procedures at a federal courthouse in Florida could compromise individuals' privacy.

Unhappy Senate lawmakers have asked the U.S. Marshals Service, an arm of the Justice Department, to explain why it has stored more than 35,000 whole body imaging scans taken at a federal courthouse in Florida.

In an Aug. 19 letter to the agency, Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said they were concerned individuals' privacy might be compromised. The advanced imaging technology used during security screening procedures at the federal courthouse in Orlando "are able to scan through clothing and capture detailed images of the bodies of those who are scanned," the lawmakers said in the letter.

Sens. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii; Thomas Carper, D-Del.; Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.; and Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., also signed the letter.

Body scan machines came under scrutiny on Christmas Day 2009 after an alleged terrorist bypassed airport security with an explosive device concealed in his undergarments in a failed attempt to blow up a U.S.-bound passenger jet. Privacy advocates say the scanning technology is invasive and ineffective, while some security specialists say more devices are necessary to detect weapons that metal detectors cannot reveal.

In response to media reports, the Marshals Service issued on Aug. 5 a statement that said the machine that screens individuals at the Orlando courthouse is a passive millimeter wave system manufactured by Brijot Systems, and the pictures are not accessible without an administrative password. In addition, officials said the service never accessed the images until the agency received a request under the Freedom of Information Act for them from the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a civil liberties group.

The images "can in no way be described as images of 'naked' or 'undressed' people. Rather, they are pixilated, chalky and blurred images," the statement said. "One cannot tell if the subject is male or female. Privacy is protected while safely and effectively detecting potential threats and contraband."

The agency provided a link to the manufacturer's website, where similar body scans can be seen.

"As one can easily see, the scanned images do not reveal anatomical details. One cannot tell if the subject is male or female," the statement said.

Nonetheless, the senators requested "a full explanation" as to why the service saved the images and asked about other locations where the images might be stored.

The lawmakers also urged the agency to adopt stricter privacy practices and consider employing a software program that automates the process of screening images, which would eliminate the need for guards to directly view the depictions.

The Transportation Security Administration, which also uses whole-body scanners, has publicized its privacy policies, which ban saving most full-body images. TSA also prohibits sharing the pictures electronically. The senators encouraged the U.S. Marshals Service to adopt similar security practices.

They also suggested the agency consider switching to a different technology called automatic target recognition, which uses a machine instead of employees to examine the images. TSA is contemplating whether to deploy the software at its checkpoints in U.S. airports.

"Computer-based autodetection technology, which identifies potentially threatening objects on a person using a featureless human body outline to highlight those areas of the individual that may require further inspection, would go a long way to address the legitimate privacy concerns many Americans have regarding whole body imaging technology," the senators wrote.

On Friday, Marshals Service spokesman Steve Blando had no additional comment beyond the Aug. 5 statement. He said the agency has received the senators' letter and will respond appropriately.