Why the leaked body scanner photos matter

Photos showing scans taken by a popular body scanner used in airports might not look like much, but should change how we think about security, privacy, and the TSA.

Whitish splotches and censored faces, in images recorded in a courthouse miles away from the nearest airport: I'll grant that the initial impression given by the photos published today by Gizmodo isn't as bone chilling as it might have been.

The pictures, recorded by a millimeter wave body scanner made by Brijot Imaging Systems, are just 100 of the 35,000 Gizmodo gained access to by means of a Freedom of Information Act request. The scans portrayed in the photos took place in a courthouse in Orlando, FL, with a machine widely used by the TSA at airports nationwide.

In the context of recent outrage over the TSA's use of body scanners, the news story actually broke softly for some, who pointed to the low image quality as a sign that, well, maybe it's not that big of a deal that we have to walk though a different piece of hardware to get on a flight. After all, who would be embarrassed to be rendered as something that, to the naked eye, looks more like a cartoon ghost than a nude picture?

Gizmodo points out that these machines were being used improperly, and that by nature, they take lower resolution images that the newly popular "backscatter" scanners, which have drawn fire for digitally denuding passengers. On the subject, the TSA issued a statement in 2008:

Passenger privacy is ensured through the anonymity of the image: The officer attending the passenger will not view the image, and as an additional precaution, the officer viewing the image will be remotely located and the image won't be stored, transmitted or printed, and deleted immediately once viewed. In fact, the machines have zero storage capability.

This claim, which refers to millimeter wave scanners like the one featured in the Gizmodo post, is still on the TSA's website. In January of this year, the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a lawsuit alleging that the machines could in fact store images while used in a "test" mode, and that the TSA was aware of this functionality. In August, it was revealed that over 35,000 of these images had been recorded by the US Marshals Service--a federal organization.

The true worry, then, isn't that a bunch of blurry images from a Florida courthouse have made their way from a body scanner to internet--it's that other images like this could have done the same. Had the courthouse been using a different grade of machine, or even a different configuration of this same one, the images could have been much more revealing.

Despite vocal backlash, the American public is generally accepting of these types of body scans, assuming that they net real results for airport security. Says Nate Silver of the NYT:

The T.S.A. is fond of citing polls which suggest that about 75 or 80 percent of air travelers approve of the new machines. There are a couple of issues having to do with the timing of these surveys, however. Most of them were conducted in January, immediately after the failed attempt last Christmas day by a Nigerian man, who had concealed explosives in his underwear, to blow up a plane travelling from Amsterdam to Detroit — during which time concern about air travel security would naturally have been quite elevated.

He adds, though that despite the timing of the polls, that his guess is that "a majority of such passengers will approve of [body scanners]: Americans are willing to tolerate a great number of things at the airport that they would never stand for in other parts of their lives."

This support assumes a number of this: that the scans will, in fact, only be seen at a remote location, with no means of identification; that they won't be recorded; that they won't be archived anywhere; and that they won't be published on the internet.

Granted, these photos aren't from an airport, and the TSA had nothing to do with their production or release. But the people walking through the doors of that building in Orlando did share something in common with airline passengers: those same assumptions of privacy and anonymity. The release of these images means that the non-storage of scanner images is a mere matter of policy, not built-in technical limitations.

That the barrier between the internet and potentially revealing photos of you--or your family--is as thin as a single employee in an agency of tens of thousands is deeply worrying even if, on their own, today's images aren't.

Disclosure: I contribute to Gizmodo.com on a freelance basis

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com