Police Using Mobile X-Ray Vans to Spy on Targets

In New York City, the police now maintain an unknown number of military-grade vans outfitted with X-ray radiation, enabling cops to look through the walls of buildings or the sides of trucks. 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.

The NYPD will not reveal when, where, or how often they are used.

“I will not talk about anything at all about this,” New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton told a journalist for the New York Post who pressed for details on the vans. “It falls into the range of security and counter-terrorism activity that we engage in.”

Here are some specific questions that the police refuse to answer:

  • How is the NYPD ensuring that innocent New Yorkers are not subject to harmful X-ray radiation?
  • How long is the NYPD keeping the images that it takes and who can look at them?
  • Is the NYPD obtaining judicial authorization prior to taking images, and if so, what type of authorization?
  • Is the technology funded by taxpayer money, and has the use of the vans justified the price tag?

For all we know, the NYPD might be bombarding apartment houses with radiation while people are inside or peering inside vehicles on the street as unwitting passersby are exposed to radiation. The city’s position—that New Yorkers have no right to know if that is happening or not—is so absurd that one can hardly believe they’re taking it.  And since the technology can see through clothing, it is easy to imagine a misbehaving NYPD officer abusing it

In her ruling, Judge Doris Ling-Cohan highlights the fact that beyond the privacy questions raised by the technology are very real health and safety concerns. She writes:

Petitioner states in his affidavit, and respondent does not dispute, that: backscatter technology, previously deployed in European Union airports, was banned in 2011, because of health concerns; an internal presentation from American Science and Engineering, Inc., the company that manufactures the vans, determined that the vans deliver a radiation dose 40 percent larger than delivered by a backscatter airport scanner; bystanders present when the van is in use are exposed to the radiation that the van emits… moreover, petitioner maintains, and it is not disputed by the NYPD, that ‘there may be significant health risks associated with the use of backscatter x-ray devices as these machines use ionizing radiation, a type of radiation long known to mutate DNA and cause cancer.



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