The Homeland Security Department paid contractors millions of dollars to develop and study surveillance systems that could covertly track pedestrians and check under people's clothing with airport-style body scanners as they enter train stations, bus depots or major events, newly released documents show.
Two contracts the department signed in 2005 and 2006 were part of its effort to acquire technology to find suicide bombers in a crowd of moving people, according to documents given to the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a privacy-rights group that is suing Homeland Security.
The department dropped the projects in a "very early" phase after testing showed flaws, Homeland Security spokesman Bobby Whithorne says.
EPIC lawyer Ginger McCall says the project is disturbing nonetheless because it shows the department "obviously believed that this level of surveillance is acceptable when in fact it is not at all acceptable."
A $1.9 million contract with Rapiscan Systems, which makes airport body scanners, asked the company to develop similar machines for "covert inspection of moving subjects" and to find explosives on suicide bombers "through clothing, backpacks and other packages." The contract was signed in 2005.
Rapiscan's airport body scanners require subjects to stand still while the machines create an image of passengers underneath their clothing to reveal hidden weapons. EPIC has sued the department to stop their use, saying the machines violate privacy.
Rapiscan Vice President Peter Kant says the company gave Homeland Security a prototype machine designed "primarily for non-aviation settings" because it could scan people while they were moving.
Lab tests of the prototype resulted in the project being dropped, Whithorne says.
In 2006, the department signed a $1.3 million contract with Northeastern University in Boston to test systems that could potentially "monitor and track individuals in a crowd." Northeastern studied video cameras, imaging equipment similar to body scanners and radar, which can spot people at a distance.
After receiving Northeastern's reports, Homeland Security decided against trying to develop a prototype machine, Whithorne says.
Using systems to covertly scan pedestrians "would be a clear violation" of laws against unreasonable searches, McCall says. "If you are walking down the street, this allows them to digitally strip-search you and rifle through your belongings without any sort of justification," she says.
Homeland Security studies privacy implications of technologies before they are used on the public. The department dropped the two projects "before we even got to the privacy assessment phase," Whithorne says.
Homeland Security has sought for several years to develop technology that can scan moving people, and has publicly tested equipment at a New Jersey rail station and at airports in Denver and Minneapolis.
Body scanners typically require a controlled environment that eliminates outside light, security consultant Rich Roth says.
Homeland Security has spent billions of dollars to develop systems that detect everything from airborne pathogens to people illegally crossing into the U.S. from Mexico.