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Invasion of the Body Scanners

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The concept of "stimulus" may soon take on new connotations in the days ahead. The federal government is poised to emplace full-body scanners at airports across the nation, capable of peering under a person's garments. As noted by a former Cabinet member, this new technology "will give us the ability to see what someone has concealed underneath their clothing." The prurient implications of this startling revelation are obvious, and one can only marvel at the full cultural import of widely available "x-ray vision" technology being deployed. Indeed, for those who remember the old X-ray Specs advertised on the back of comic books to see through women's clothes, it is apparently a longstanding boyhood fantasy now set to become national policy. This is essentially a form of high-tech voyeurism masking as security, and it portends more such incursions into liberty and privacy. How did it come to this, and so suddenly at that?

Contracting for Success

At the outset, someone is profiting from these scanners. In recent years, the company Rapiscan (a wholly-owned subsidiary of OSI Systems, Inc., which focuses on "healthcare, security, and defense") has made quite a name for itself. In January 2007, an article documenting its rising profile noted that "Rapiscan's presence on Capitol Hill pays off" with the company having opened a new Washington office and hiring a number of outside lobbyists. As this piece details:

The results have been apparent. Last year the company did $17 million to $20 million in contracts. Over the past six months, the company has had $40 million in sales to the U.S. government, compared with $8 million in 2004."We plan to dramatically expand in the next few years well above the multimillion-dollar [mark]," says Peter Kant, vice president of government affairs for Rapiscan". Rapiscan also decided last year to join the political money game in a more coordinated effort, by creating a political action committee. Kant says he expects the PAC to raise $50,000 to $75,000 a year and donate equally to both parties. Previously, about 60 percent of the political donations from the firm's executives went to Republicans". How Rapiscan and other homeland-security companies will fare in the new political climate is still unclear. Lawmakers are expected to increase oversight and investigation of homeland-security issues such as government contracts.

Rapiscan is a global security company that has systems being utilized, according to its website, "at airports, government and corporate buildings, correctional and prison facilities, postal facilities, military zones, sea ports and border crossings." Their products are deployed in locations including Pakistan (where mobile units are used in combat zones) and airports around the world. As reported on CNN, Rapiscan received $25.4 million from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) by way of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (i.e., the Stimulus Bill), to produce 150 new full-body scanners to be used at airports across the United States. Peter Kant, a vice president at Rapiscan, said that the government has given the TSA the green light to spend up to $173 million on new scanners, which could lead to the emplacement of hundreds of such devices in the near future. Interestingly, the $25.4 million tendered to Rapiscan for the first 150 scanners was formally awarded in September 2009, well ahead of the Christmas Day bombing attempt that has set off the recent flurry of scanner demands. According to, Rapiscan also received $2.9 million in stimulus monies in May 2009. The total number of jobs created by these millions in stimulus funds? Forty.

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Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., teaches Peace Studies at Prescott College, and serves as the Executive Director of the Peace & Justice Studies Association. His most recent books include the co-edited volume Building Cultures of Peace: Transdisciplinary (more...)
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