51:2 Taking It to the Streets: Uncovering the Secret Mobilization of Backscatter X-Ray Technology and the Concerns Surrounding Its Use


In an effort to bolster national security following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Transportation Security Administration began utilizing what became commonly referred to as “airport body scanners”—imaging devices capable of creating photo-like images of airline passengers’ bodies. The controversial technology spurred several lawsuits, scathing media attention, and public outcry labeling the technology as an invasion of privacy and an encroachment upon the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. Soon thereafter, the overwhelming attention led numerous major airports to replace the controversial scanners with less invasive scanners.

In the meantime, this same invasive technology has been taken to the streets in the form of Z Backscatter Vans (ZBVs)—covert, unmarked vans capable of roaming the streets while simultaneously emitting X-rays that create photo-like images of adjacent vehicles’ interiors. American Science & Engineering, the ZBV’s manufacturer, admits the ZBV “looks like an ordinary delivery van,” and is “designed for covert use.” Not surprisingly, unlike its controversial presence in airports, backscatter X-ray technology onboard these street-roving vans has gone largely undetected.

This Comment aims to change this dangerous status quo. Much like other undetected dangers and social issues, raising awareness and garnering the attention of the public will be key in achieving the ultimate goal: stripping ZBVs of their covert nature. Although the Food and Drug Administration regulates the manufacturers of electronic radiation emitting products sold in the United States, it does not regulate their use. Therefore, ZBVs are free to roam the streets as unmarked and unregulated white delivery vans without any notice to the public of their X-ray capabilities. This Comment proposes a simple solution to prevent covert, unconstitutional use: label the sides of ZBVs with “Mobile X-ray Unit.” Through public awareness and regulation, we can more adequately protect our Fourth Amendment rights by preventing surreptitious use of “one of the most intrusive technologies conceivable.”