The New York Police Department has been ordered to release details on the covert X-ray vans they have been using to search for bombs around they city. The equipment in the vans is basically an older version of the backscatter machines removed from the nation’s airports in part due to the concern that they may cause cancer. The court order marks the end of a three-year battle between the NYPD and Pro Publica, a non-profit journalism organization also based in New York.

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For years, the New York City Police Department has been conducting a secret program that uses unmarked vans to look for bombs. The vans are made by American Science and Engineering, Inc, based in Massachusetts, and reportedly cost between $729,000 and $825,000 each. The nondescript vans are equipped with X-ray machines, and they can detect explosives in other vehicles simply by driving or parking next to them.

The details of the initiative, including the potential risks, have been relatively unknown up to this point. The NYPD has consistently refused to release any information about the program, claiming that public knowledge would hinder counter-terrorism investigations and endanger New Yorkers. A state judge has finally granted a court order to Pro Publica, forcing the NYPD to release records related to the program. The documents in question will hopefully shed some light in the intensity of X-rays used, as well as record-keeping policies related to the privacy of New York citizens.

Related: New study links regular dental x-rays to cancer

New York isn’t the only place X-ray vans are being used by law enforcement. The vans are also being employed by border patrol and other agencies. When used for security applications, X-ray technology isn’t subject to most FDA regulations. Other law enforcement agencies haven’t been so hush-hush about the details of their programs, so the NYPD’s reluctance to cooperate has created suspicion. Time will tell if the court-ordered documents will ease these concerns.


Images via American Science and Engineering and Wikimedia.