Friday, January 9, 2015

How many years have you been x-rayed without consent or knowledge?

If you live in New York, you may soon find out. It could be that NYPD has not used van-mounted x-rays to view inside occupied buildings or vehicles, and has not used them near pedestrians. But, they have been stonewalling Pro-Publica for the past three years on even being transparent about their safety procedures. Furthermore, NYPD may have databases of x-ray images of vehicles and buildings (yes, the radiation can penetrate metal and concrete) - and perhaps nude images of people - since they apparently have no privacy protection policies in place. But a judge is requiring NYPD to release documentation regarding how these x-ray vans are used.

(Do you suddenly feel like you have entered a science-fiction novel?)

Furthermore, these vans have been in use by the US military in the countries they occupy (yet more trampling on the natural-born freedoms of foreigners), by US Customs at borders (at least they have a policy in place that requires vehicles are not occupied at the time of the scan), and by other law enforcement agencies at conventions and sporting events;

The most extensive reference to the vans came in a book written by two ABC News reporters who chronicled a year inside the agency's bomb squad.
Describing the security around the 2004 Republican convention in New York, they wrote that every vehicle entering a street in front of the convention hotel was ordered to drive between two white vans, which X-rayed each vehicle for explosives.
Aside from the totally outrageous violations of civil liberties that have been going on right under our noses with almost no public awareness, we could delve (once again) into the issue of whether the government can ever be expected to use technology like this responsibly.
There are two quotes from the ProPublica article that I want to address:

But the National Academy has taken the position that the danger comes from cumulative exposure and that even trivial amounts increase the risk of cancer.
 It is interesting to me that, until now, the standard retort for pro-naked scanners has been "the radiation from the scanners is a fraction of what you are exposed to in flight." The implication is that - even though the former is involuntary radiation while the latter is voluntary - you can't complain about the radiation from x-ray scanners at all.

But if vans are scanning people just walking down the street, this argument goes out the window. And we are left with the ALARA (as low as reasonably achievable) principle, as well as a potentially much higher number of exposures and a greater percentage of the population being exposed, which means all the previously estimates regarding naked scanners need to be re-calculated.
"It's not that the radiation from these machines is very high," Peter Rez, an Arizona State University physicist, told ProPublica in 2012. "It's 'Does the benefit outweigh the risk?' "
There is no answer to this question. All value is subjective. All benefits and risks to an individual are subjective. An individual can use objective data to inform their subjective preferences, but that doesn't mean that a third party can make this evaluation. It is literally impossible.

Of course, Prof Rez is talking about public benefits and public risks, as well as individual benefits and individual risks. Again, impossible. Economists and bureaucrats do try to come up with approximations for this, but it has no bearing on you or me in reality. Is the public good of maybe, possibly (but probably not) preventing some sort of death or maiming or fear more important than the small, but measurable, risk that an individual will get cancer from excess x-ray exposure? What if you have the BRCA1 gene? What if we continue to wrongfully occupy more and more foreign countries? How do these risks and benefits change? The answer is: it is impossible to know, and the best we can each do is be left to make our own decisions about our own radiation exposure. If we get cancer, then we'll know that we always made the choices we wanted at the time.

In my own case, the individual risk I will incur if some tyrant rising to power in a undeveloped nation thousands of miles away is extremely unimportant to me. The very real risk of getting a pat-down at the airport if I want to fly somewhere gives me anxiety. I would prefer if the leaders in DC would stop inviting terrorist attacks by their constant meddling in foreign countries, and also return my 4th Amendment rights to me. I can make these subjective values. You will have to make your own. The state can never make them for any of us.