The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has properly shielded from public review 2,000 whole-body scan images, a federal judge in Washington said today in a public records suit.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit group focused on civil rights and privacy interests, sued in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to force the Department of Homeland Security to turn over the images and other documents.
The Washington-based privacy center is examining the use of body scanning technology and its implications for civil rights. Lawyers for the center want to review “unfiltered or unobscured” images of volunteers that the body scanning technology captured. The center filed suit in November 2009.
DHS officials produced more than 1,700 pages in response to the suit but it withheld 2,000 whole body images and 376 pages of Transportation Security Administration training materials. The images were created to test the degree to which the body scanners met the government’s detection standards, government lawyers said.
Judge Ricardo Urbina of Washington’s federal trial court said today the government has no obligation under the Freedom of Information Act to produce the images to the plaintiffs. The center’s lawyers were not immediately reached for comment this morning on the ruling.
U.S. Justice Department lawyers said in response to the demand for the images that their release “would constitute a threat of transportation security” by revealing certain vulnerabilities of body-scanning technology. The images, DOJ lawyers also said, are internal records that are not subject to public disclosure.
Lawyers for the privacy center, John Verdi and Marc Rotenberg, said in court records that the government has already produced a limited number of body scanner images to the public and therefore there’s no justification for blocking further disclosure. The attorneys said there is a substantial public interest in the release of the images.
“The body scanner program is presently the subject of substantial debate in Congress, between international delegations, and in the media,” the center’s lawyers said in court papers in June. “Central to the dispute is whether the TSA can store and record detailed images of naked air travelers at US airports without any privacy filters. The TSA contends that it would not do this, but the agency possesses 2,000 relevant images and refuses to release any.”
In his 15-page ruling today, Urbina said the privacy center has provided no basis for the court to question the government’s “reasonable conclusion that disclosure of the images may provide terrorists and others with increased abilities to circumvent detection by TSA and carry threatening contraband onboard an [airplane].”