Still images courtesy American Science and Engineering, Inc.

While debate continues in the United States over whether whole-body imagers now being used at airports to detect weapons violate privacy rights and even create potential health risks, manufacturers of the technology are opening deeper opportunities for themselves elsewhere that could make the controversial machines a bigger part of everyday life.

A Massachusetts-based company claims that government agencies here and abroad have purchased hundreds of its van-mounted X-ray devices that reveal the contents of passing vehicles without authorities relying on a manual search to find human stowaways, secret compartments full of narcotics or bomb ingredients.

An executive of American Science & Engineering told Forbes privacy writer Andy Greenberg late last month that the X-ray scanners are most popular with the Defense Department, a fact borne out by federal contracting data. Troops face insurgent bomb architects in Iraq and Afghanistan capable of stymieing the world’s most powerful armed forces with crude, MacGyver-style explosives, so vehicle X-ray technology in a place like Baghdad makes sense.

But marketing vice president Joe Reiss said they’re also being snapped up by law enforcement officials here, another fact supported by public records, which list at least five major federal agencies including the Department of Homeland Security as purchasers of the equipment, in addition to the Pentagon. “This product is now the largest selling cargo and vehicle inspection system ever,” Reiss boasted to Forbes.

Drilling deeper, the transcript of a February earnings conference call shows that company CEO Anthony Fabiano told investors AS&E had sold its first vehicle X-ray scanner “to a state government for law enforcement applications. That’s a U.S. state.” Additional details are scant.

The same privacy defenders who refer to full-body airport scanners as “virtual strip searches,” like Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, are asking similar questions about whether the common use by law enforcement of so-called Z Backscatter Vans would comply with the Constitution.

Video depicting vehicle X-ray scanners in operation.

Airport scanners see underneath the clothing of travelers, and for that the government needs a warrant, Rotenberg argues. Like other probing surveillance technologies, penetrating vehicles at random regardless of whether the driver and passengers are believed to have done anything wrong turns the legal notion of probable cause on its head. The machines are also able to store images long-term, unlike what the Transportation Security Administration has promised of full-body systems.

According to Forbes:

Even airport scans are typically used only as a secondary measure, [Rotenberg] points out. ‘If the scans can only be used in exceptional cases in airports, the idea that they can be used routinely on city streets is a very hard argument to make.’ The TSA’s official policy dictates that full-body scans must be viewed in a separate room from any guards dealing directly with subjects of the scans, and that the scanners won’t save any images. Just what sort of safeguards might be in place for AS&E’s scanning vans isn’t clear, given that the company won’t reveal just which law enforcement agencies, organizations within the [Department of Homeland Security], or foreign governments have purchased the equipment.

Specific privacy protections may indeed be elusive. But it’s wrong to suggest no paper trail exists to tell a larger story about how much business AS&E is doing with the U.S. government. Available public records are maddeningly inconsistent and critical information is often missing, such as what the government actually purchased.

What we can say conservatively is that since 2004, AS&E has inked deals with agencies in Washington for its mobile X-ray machines totaling at least $188 million, a figure that includes things like maintenance agreements and technical training. Much of that spending comes from the military. However, the Homeland Security Department in the last two years has signed $33.3 million in contracts covering at least 42 scanners for its U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The exact quantity of machines may be higher.

One $19 million pact for two-dozen vehicle X-ray scanners was made possible with President Obama’s economic stimulus program, and homeland security officials planned to use them on the border.

Click to see data from AS&E’s contracts with the federal government.

The State Department bought another 30 mobile X-ray vehicles for $26 million, many of which were then deployed in Mexico for drug war and border security purposes, records show. The feds acquired five backscatter vans last year valued at $4.6 million that were donated to the Mexican government as part of the Merida Initiative, an effort launched in 2008 to aid the nation’s southern neighbor in combating organized crime and drug traffickers.

There is no equivalent contracting database to view purchases among state and local governments, so it’s difficult to tell how vigorously law enforcement officials at that level may be pursuing X-ray vans. But certainly the use of similar technologies by county sheriffs and metro police is growing at a rate that agitates privacy activists, for example, license-plate readers and speed cameras.

It is the case that AS&E shares are publicly traded on Wall Street, which means further details about its earnings are contained in various disclosure forms filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Its last annual filing shows that the global company’s business with U.S. taxpayers has steadily increased over the last three years accounting for 63 percent of total sales during the 2010 fiscal year.

AS&E also markets other products to government officials, such as inspection equipment for mail and cargo in addition to full-body imagers. Purchasing data show that the manufacturer overall has stacked up contracts with federal agencies here since 2000 worth more than $760 million, its other clients ranging from the FBI and the Treasury Department to FEMA and the Secret Service.

Some of its income stems from cash handed out for government-sponsored research into X-ray and inspection technologies, for which AS&E has been awarded nearly $29 million since 2008 alone, according to SEC filings.

The company eschews privacy worries surrounding its vehicle X-ray scanners arguing that they don’t detail human forms the way airport imagers do, and the intent is to see what’s inside a car or truck, not single out individuals by identity, race or gender. So far, groups like EPIC and the American Civil Liberties Union haven’t mounted any significant public campaign against scanner vans and demanded restrictions on their use in the United States. But that may be due to the fact that much of the attention now is focused on airport imagers.

The same goes for Congress where key lawmakers are instructing senior leaders at DHS to consider using alternative airport scanners with enhanced privacy protections and to convene a panel of medical experts who can determine whether radiation emitted by some of the machines threatens human health.

Senators like Republican Susan Collins of Maine, part of a group in Congress pressuring DHS on body imagers, aren’t making related demands when it comes to the government looking inside your trunk without opening it.

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G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED,, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.