One of my guides for analyzing the steady erosion of our civil rights is my Founding Fathers Time Machine Test. You’ve got a DeLorean with a flux capacitor and you get to travel back in time to warn the Founding Fathers about the future, in hopes they craft a stronger and more explicit Bill of Rights. (They were so worried about quartering soldiers in their homes they wasted an amendment that could have been an explicit right to cultivate hemp!) How do you explain to the creators of our precious liberty what is happening to our rights today?
We already had to tell James Madison about the approval of police secretly and invisibly stalking us and tracking our every movement without a warrant. We’ve had to explain to Ben Franklin that our employers are allowed to ask us for our pee and fire us if they don’t like it. We had to break it to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson that we can be arrested and jailed for growing hemp. We’ve told John Adams about citizens silenced by the state from expressing unpopular views (he really wasn’t that outraged.) It was most difficult explaining to Alexander Hamilton why we had strip searches of thirteen-year-old girls at school.
Now, courtesy of Forbes Magazine, we have to try to explain to these distinguished forefathers that the state has roving carriages with wizards that can peer through your home, your carriage, your clothing, even your body.
American Science & Engineering, a company based in Billerica, Massachusetts, has sold U.S. and foreign government agencies more than 500 backscatter x-ray scanners mounted in vans that can be driven past neighboring vehicles to see their contents, Joe Reiss, a vice president of marketing at the company told me in an interview.
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The Z Backscatter Vans, or ZBVs, as the company calls them, bounce a narrow stream of x-rays off and through nearby objects, and read which ones come back. Absorbed rays indicate dense material such as steel. Scattered rays indicate less-dense objects that can include explosives, drugs, or human bodies. That capability makes them powerful tools for security, law enforcement, and border control.
Reiss adds that the vans do have the capability of storing images. “Sometimes customers need to save images for evidentiary reasons,” he says. “We do what our customers need.”
And some of you thought the Google Earth Street View was a little creepy.