TSA's wet dream to hit streets of New York -

A mobile scanning device being trialled by the New York Police Department has come under fire from a leading privacy watchdog over concerns it could trample all over existing search laws.

The NYPD announced recently that it has been working on a scanner which uses infrared rays to detect for firearms hidden in their clothes from a safe distance.

There are worries that, because of the power of the van-mounted device, a lot of innocent bystanders will be subject to unwarranted spying from authorities.

The device – developed along with the Department of Defense – is currently only capable of detecting weapons from a distance of a few feet, but the plan is to increase this by up to 25 metres.

This means that a mobile unit could easily scan whole streets at a time.  Inevitably, this would also mean taking a peek under the clothes of any bystanders caught in the machine’s firing line.

US authorities have a history of using technology to spy on the public, with airport staff getting a chance to gawp at frequent flyers with the TSA's own scanning kit. Aside from potential pervy applications this presents a real problem legally, essentially allowing police to perform a ‘virtual frisk’ without a suspect even being aware.

In the UK, which has a habit of following US trends, stop and search rules have historically been highly divisive, with many claiming that it is used to target those from ethnic minorities. With a powerful mobile scanner, police would be able to point at whoever they liked without having to confront them at all.

Privacy International spokesperson Emma Draper believes that the use of such technology has worrying implications.

“The NYPD's plans to extend the range of the technology to 25 metres strongly suggests that this technology is ultimately intended for scanning entire streets, rather than targeting specific individuals,” she told TechEye.

“This would render the whole idea of 'probable cause' irrelevant - you would be subject to a virtual stop-and-search simply because you happened to walk past a scanner, without even knowing that your privacy had been infringed.” 
 
As with the introduction of any surveillance technology, the arguable pluses would need to be weighed up against the intrusion into personal privacy and liberties.

“Police departments need to think carefully before implementing new technologies,” Draper continued, “balancing the legitimate needs of law enforcement against the privacy rights of innocent citizens.

“At the moment, the vast majority of physical stop-and-searches performed by the NYPD find nothing incriminating.”

With the UK, and London in particular, seeing some of the highest densities of CCTV, it wouldn't be a surprise if such monitoring equipment appeals to police departments here, too. 

She continued: “Police departments around the world are increasingly keen to adopt new technologies, and the British police are no exception.

“Yet there is very little transparency about the sort of equipment the police are buying and how they are using it, and it is still largely unclear whether the use of these new methods of surveillance by police officers is actually legal under existing communications interception legislation.”