Exposed: The Feds and the Shady Uses of Government Technology

Last Updated Jul 7, 2011 5:15 PM EDT

Two federal agencies -- the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI -- have recently been forced by activist group Freedom of Information Act requests to turn over documents that showed some shady doings in their use of technology. I know, I know, who would have believed it?

The DHS documents, obtained by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, are about the controversial full body scanners at airports. The agency has claimed that the devices are safe. As DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano wrote in November 2010:
AIT machines are safe, efficient, and protect passenger privacy. They have been independently evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, who have all affirmed their safety. And the weapons and other dangerous and prohibited items we've found during AIT screenings have illustrated their security value time and again.
The glow of health
Just a couple of problems: neither NIST nor Johns Hopkins affirmed anything of the sort. NIST had contacted DHS because it was concerned about "mischaracterization of their work." The agency stressed three things:
  • NIST does not do product testing.
  • NIST did not test AIT machines for safety.
  • NIST tested the dose of a single machine and compared it against the radiation exposure standard.
Given that there are two major scanner manufacturers and multiple models in use, measuring a single device doesn't even give a realistic look at the amount of radiation emitted. In fact, a solitary unit wouldn't necessarily give a representative look at the one model line. The Johns Hopkins report showed areas extending nearly 5 feet behind the devices and up to 14 feet above that could receive more than the public radiation dose limit.

Protecting the intellectual property of our vendors
"The frustrating things about these documents is that the TSA redacted the actual study findings of how much radiation output these machines produced," says Ginger McCall, EPIC open government counsel. DHS used the protection of corporate trade secrets (FOIA exemption (b)(4)) as the grounds for the censoring, as the sample below shows (click to enlarge):


The Transportation Security Administration, part of DHS, admitted in March that radiation tests were flawed. Some radiation levels were 10 times higher than tests showed. TSA claims that the systems are still safe, although according to claims of the TSA workers' union, a growing number of transportation security officers (TSOs) in Boston are developing cancer. The TSA appears to have refused to outfit the TSOs with dosimeters that could track the actual radiation dosage and allow more informed analysis and decisions.

Smile, you're on candid retina scan
The other set of documents, obtained by the Center for Constitutional Rights, show that the FBI has been working on a giant biometric database that could add iris scans, palm prints, facial recognition information, and other such identifying information to the existing fingerprint database.

There is an official recommendation to turn the database into a mandatory program at the local level for Immigration and Customs Enforcement use, and, allegedly, evidence that some officials have considered storing information on natural-born U.S. citizens.

Remind me again: Wasn't technology supposed to increase the transparency of government and informed decisions by citizens?

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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