With last week’s Supreme Court ruling on GPS tracking by police, privacy in the digital age is getting more and more attention. The next issue the justices might have to tackle is whether or not it’s constitutional to use other forms of surveillance — including mobile body scanning technology, which the New York Police Department is set to begin testing this year.
The scanners work by reading a body’s ‘heat signature,” which doesn’t pass through solid metal objects (such as guns or knives). So when a suspect is scanned, the system alerts officers to the threat of potential weapons.
Currently, the scanners need to be about 3 or 4 feet from a suspect to get an accurate reading. But the NYPD is working with the U.S. Department of Defense to increase that range to 80 feet, allowing a scanning unit to be mounted on top of a police van, for example, and covertly monitor suspects from a distance.
It could be argued that body scanning technology is a less invasive way for the NYPD to administer its “stop-and-frisk” policy, which grants officers the power to detain and check anyone for weapons or other contraband as long as the cops deem them “suspicious.”
Stop-and-frisk has received some negative feedback from privacy advocates and other interest groups. According to the policy’s detractors, not only does it invade the privacy of innocent people who might look subjectively suspicious, it also puts officers in needless danger.
Body scanners would reduce the instances of invasive person-to-person encounters between police and suspects, and could conceivably eliminate the stop-and-frisk entirely. But the technology also opens a Pandora’s box of privacy issues.
The NYPD would be able to digitally scan whomever they chose, which could well be a violation of the unreasonable search and seizure protection written into the Fourth Amendment.
The benefits of the technology as a law enforcement tool are obvious, but so are the potential privacy trade-offs. With its recent ruling on GPS tracking by police, The Supreme Court has signaled that it’s ready to dig deeper into digital surveillance law. We’re looking forward to hearing what the justices have to say about body scanning. It could open the door to a whole new way for police and citizens to interact with technology.