Tags: Weapons | Scanner | Raises | Constitutional | Concern

Weapons Scanner Raises Constitutional Concern

Wednesday, 30 May 2001 12:00 AM

News of the planned system comes amid national angst over domestic terrorism while adding a new dimension to the debate over the constitutionality of high-tech policing practices.

Government sources said they hope to have a working prototype of the device by year's end. The apparatus could one day be mounted on police vehicles and driven through unruly crowds to spot individuals carrying guns, knives and perhaps even plastic explosives.

Engineers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology's office are developing the technology with funding from the National Institute of Justice and the Federal Aviation Administration. NIST is a nonregulatory federal agency.

The technology is based upon an apparatus that illuminates groups of people with low-level electromagnetic waves that penetrate clothing but reflect off objects concealed beneath them. The reflected energy is collected, focused onto a detector array and ultimately transformed into an image that is displayed on a policeman's laptop, said sources at NIST.

However, "When does a technology-based search constitute a search for constitutional purposes? How do you evaluate the level of intrusiveness?" posed James Dempsey of Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington privacy group.

Dempsey said U.S. courts have held that airport metal detectors do not violate the Fourth Amendment about unreasonable search and seizure in part because such searches are overt and minimally intrusive, and because individuals have a choice not to board an airplane.

"In this case, your right to be in the street, and particularly your right to protest, is more significant than the right to get on a jet plane. Furthermore, the use of this device is not overt and there is no warning of it. Already, there are two strikes against it," he told United Press International.

"My concern is over the way we think about these technological tools," said Kristian Miccio, professor of law at Western State University College of Law in Fullerton, Calif. "I fear we will put the concept of unruly crowds and crime on the back burner while putting the technologies to enhance law enforcement on the front burner.

"In our fear of crime and terrorism, we are giving up so many freedoms we haven't thought about," she continued in a telephone interview with UPI. "We have to decide what kind of culture and society we want to live in, that is, what are we willing to sacrifice in a war on crime."

The system uses a high-powered, commercially available power source that operates at 95 gigahertz in a pulsed mode. NIST engineers said that such a power range would not harm human health or cause stoppages in pacemakers.

"What we are doing is more along the lines of radar," said Erich Grossman, a NIST researcher on the project. "We illuminate an area with high-frequency radiation or 3-millimeter-wavelength millimeter waves. That allows us to see details but anything finer than 3 millimeters we won't see."

While millimeter waves do not penetrate deep into human tissue, the device could conceivably detect, say, a metal plate near the surface of an individual's skin, said Grossman. But, he said, the system produces images of objects rather simply detecting them, which would allow officers to discriminate between benign objects and weapons.

Grossman said the device was more powerful than airport metal detectors.

"That's because our system doesn't require a cooperative subject," he said. "In other words, it's not a portal-based system where a subject has to cooperatively walk through a particular area. That is not intent of this program."

He said the device could operate in two modes. It can image an area two meters in diameter, which could cover one or two people. If the system detects a hotspot on a particular individual, the operator can zoom in more closely.

Experts said legal considerations regarding such a device are analogous to those involved in a case pending before the Supreme Court.

Police in 1992 arrested an Oregon man after authorities used a high-tech device to sense invisible heat waves emanating from his home. Police subsequently obtained a search warrant and found a marijuana growing operation. The suspect, Kyllo, claimed the search violated the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure.

"Like the Kyllo case, here is another technology that raises what is currently a major issue under the Fourth Amendment," said Dempsey.

"There are many things to consider - such as how intrusive is this search? Is it like taking a person's clothes off? Can the police see a person's body or do they only get an image of the weapon? Those are factual questions that make a difference in how it is assessed from a privacy standpoint," he said.

When asked if officers would be able to see a detailed image of a human body, Grossman said that in theory engineers could incorporate a digital camera into the device, allowing the millimeter image to be superimposed over an optical image. Such a move would let officers see a person's body in detail.

"In a practical system you could certainly do that, but we are not planning to do that with the prototype," Grossman said.

Officials at the National Institute of Justice and the Federal Aviation Administration said they could not provide comment by press time.

The agencies have funded the project to the tune of $200,000 a year for about three years, said Grossman.

Copyright 2001 by United Press International.

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News of the planned system comes amid national angst over domestic terrorism while adding a new dimension to the debate over the constitutionality of high-tech policing practices. Government sources said they hope to have a working prototype of the device by year's end....
Wednesday, 30 May 2001 12:00 AM
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