Dignity offered up on the altar of technology

Full body scanners take away privacy, modesty and dignity. Do we have blind faith in technology?
Brian Lilley | Mar 13 2010 | comment  



Perhaps Shah Rukh Khan was joking, perhaps he really is just more easy going than I, but whatever the truth of his claims that he autographed airport body scanner prints for adoring fans, these new fangled contraptions have me worried. Khan, a Bollywood film star, made the sensational claim, quickly denied by Heathrow Airport officials, while on a promotional tour of Britain to sell his new movie, My Name is Khan.

Officials at Heathrow say that the images on these full body scanners can neither be saved nor printed. That last statement is only partially true; the images on the machines I've seen cannot be printed, but they can be saved for use in prosecution should you be foolish enough to stuff your underwear with explosives and try to board a plane.

And of course it is just such an incident, the Christmas Day panty bomber, that has us all going through these machines if we have the misfortune to travel through an airport these days. In the end of course, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was only able to set his loins on fire rather than blow up the plane over Canadian farm fields as it headed for Detroit's airport, but his long term impact is the installation of full body scanners (naked body scanners I say) at airports around the world.

The scanners work by bombarding travellers from both sides with radio waves which then produce an image of the body under the clothing. The British Medical Journal has published articles saying they are safe, but if years of studies have yet to convince the world that mobile phones pose no health hazard, it will only be a matter of time before a passenger emerges saying they have cancer and airport scanners are to blame.

While the panty bomber is the excuse, the push for these scanners has been coming for some time. President Obama's Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was advocating for them in February 2009 shortly after taking office, announcing plans for their use in Tulsa and five other centres. Here in Canada, there were plans in place more than a year before; the city of Kelowna in the middle of British Columbia's wine country was the site of our tests.

Yet just 11 days after the attempt to take down Northwest flight 253, I was touring a suburban Ottawa warehouse with Canadian Transport Minister John Baird as he announced the scanners would now be in wide use for all American bound flights; American airports ramped up installation as well. Along with other reporters, I was shown how the machines work, what the images look like and told, just like the lady at Heathrow said, these images cannot be printed or saved (unless your shorts are stuffed with explosives, in which case the saving feature kicks in).

On the one hand I have a hard time taking these things seriously; they look like a toy I had in the late 70s; a plastic replica of the Star Trek transporter that would move and reassemble your body molecules in another room or on another planet. While my comparison is a joke, the concerns about privacy are not.

Mr. Khan, when joking about signing autographs of his scan said, "It makes you embarrassed - if you're not well endowed." Lines like that are sure to get a snicker, yet Graham Norton, with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, says concerns like this are real. Norton says the images produced hardly render you in an anatomically neutral state like a Ken doll, but actually show detail.

Nipple size and areola size are both visible and of concern for women and of course men are already thinking about what this means for them and consider Mr. Khan's words carefully. Naturally, many of us would be humiliated at the thought of going through a scanner in public that would expose us, naked to the world, despite all the assurances given by officials that nothing can go wrong.

Still we are told, this will make us safer.

Despite spending millions on this new equipment, the air travel system will still be full of holes. Airports in the United States and Canada are only just beginning to implement behavioural screening; a process where passengers are singled out for extra scrutiny based on their actions or habits. Poker players have known for more than 200 years to look for ticks or "tells" that someone is bluffing; airline officials have finally clued in to what Riverboat Captains would have thought common sense.

In the meantime, we spend our money on this new technology and randomly force little old ladies to have their privates checked out on a screen by a security guard. We surrender our privacy and billions in tax dollars that could be spent elsewhere on machines which officials already admit can be fooled. Some items may not be seen and of course, these scanners are not x-rays which means they cannot see inside the body. It is only a matter of time before some would be terrorist, pledging loyalty to al Qaida tries to bring down a plane by smuggling explosives in a body cavity. At that point, air travellers will be asked to take off their shoes, surrender their water bottles, step aside for the scan and then bend over for a probing search. At that point, perhaps the public will realise they are surrendering their rights, their dignity and getting little in the way of protection in return.

Brian Lilley is a political journalist and the Ottawa Bureau Chief for radio stations Newstalk 1010 Toronto and CJAD 800 Montreal. He is also the Associate Editor of Mercatornet. Follow Brian on Twitter.

 



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