You may not have noticed this particular tidbit of news as it broke late last week, but the NYPD has developed full-body scanning technology and is currently testing it for eventual deployment on city streets in New York City. This new technology raises a lot of questions as to just what it’s going to be used for and what the ramifications are for our right to privacy.
Police officials say that these new non-invasive full-body scanners, that don’t require stopping a suspect or even alerting them that they’re being scanned for illegal weapons such as handguns, will actually curtail “stop-and-frisk” scenarios, the highly criticized ability for NYPD officers to stop and search anyone they feel looks suspicious. Stop-and-frisk has been lambasted by critics as overreaching and acting as an encouragement to racial profiling; in fact the stop-and-frisk program in 2011 did little to deter crime, as only 12 per cent of these “suspicious” people stopped by NYPD officers were actually up to no good to the point where they were issued a summons.
On the one hand, reducing or even eliminating the need for stop-and-frisk in NYC would be a wonderful thing – especially since the program has been restarted in the Bronx pending a March 18 trial date. On the other hand, there are real, legitimate fears that using these long-range full body scanners are just a way to get around the morass of unconstitutionality by providing law enforcement officers probable cause to stop and frisk anyone they feel like, as the technology in its current state can make out rough shapes that may or may not look like firearms or contraband, and I can’t think of anything that is truly less okay – or is a bigger violation of my privacy rights – than being scanned without my consent, without my knowledge and without any justification, just as I’m walking up and down Broadway.
The argument for these body scanners may very well be the same argument that is used for video surveillance in public areas: you’re in public, people can see you, and you therefore waive your right to privacy when appearing in a public venue such as crowded city streets. Blanketing a major metropolitan city is supposed to act as a deterrent to crime, but there is research that doing so is largely ineffective in reducing crime rates in countries like the UK, where there is a strong video surveillance presence in many cities and towns. Not only that, but a video surveillance system is only as good as the human beings behind it – and human beings are ready and willing to use such omnipresent surveillance not towards reducing crime but by furthering our own goals, such as the Washington DC police lieutenant who used public surveillance footage to blackmail married men going into a local gay bar.
Finally, who wants to feel like they’re being watched – or could be scrutinized at any time – in public? Yes, there’s the old chestnut that gets trotted out whenever this comes up: “If you’re innocent, what are you so worried about?” This whole “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” myth doesn’t account for the fact that we’re entitled to a certain measure of privacy, even when appearing in public areas – and that is exactly why pervasive public surveillance, and in particular the idea of full-body scanners, is so distasteful to me.
This post was inspired by a friend and colleague of mine who recently brought this whole mess to my attention. If you find the idea of your privacy being invaded as distasteful as I do, I would highly recommend speaking out on the matter