The introduction of body scanners at international airports followed the case of Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up a flight to Detroit on which he was a passenger. He had flown from Yemen via Lagos and Holland’s Schipol Airport. There are real questions about whether the scanners work. Furthermore, they’re not needed; they invade privacy; and they’re potentially unsafe. In evidence before the Canadian parliamentary group investigating scanners, Rafi Sela, a leading Israeli security expert, derided them as ‘useless.’ His experience is acquired in a country which really knows something about security, and has no plan to introduce scanners. The scanners seem unable to penetrate beneath skin. So hiding material in body cavities or in implants conceals them.
What if they are only a tiny bit effective? We are constantly told ‘if it makes us a little safer, it’s worth it’ or ‘if it saves one life, stops one crime…’ What a specious argument that is. It would ‘save one child’ to ban flying, or the motor car, or introduce a night curfew, but we don’t, because it would be disproportionate and we have to get on with normal life, even if we incur a higher element of risk in doing so. We don’t encourage people to take wild risks with cars, but we don’t make liberty-reducing and disproportionate laws, either. We should react to the threat of terrorism in just the same way. And scanners which don’t work create a sense of security which is entirely false.
Even if they could be made to work, scanners would be disproportionate and unnecessary. President Obama has said that Abdulmutallab was able to board the Detroit flight because of systemic failure by the security services with the information they already had. Rather than ensuring that those authorities competently use what already they’ve got, both the USA and the UK are giving more power and new tools to the same systemically incompetent organisations whose incompetence caused the problem in the first place.
We’re told this technology ‘might have helped’ – to be accurate, if true, that would have to be ‘might have helped if it had been installed in Lagos.’ Which I think underscores the weirdness of the routine to which we now subject passengers going through Heathrow et al.
Let’s remember the tools already available to the services entrusted with significant powers and big budgets in order to protect us. First, and most importantly, intelligence – ranging from the research and knowledge and expertise of the security services to the commonsense and experience of border guards. Secondly, infra-red scanners which don’t show your body parts. Thirdly, sniffer dogs. Fourthly, standard metal detectors. Fifthly, swabs to detect explosive material particles. We’re hardly without protections already. All of these devices are cheap, they work, they’re available now and they don’t violate privacy. Scanners are expensive, often don’t work, they’re not available in large quantities for months and they violate privacy.
And they’re expensive, at £80,000 to £100,000 each. With an airport like Heathrow, with five terminals, one appreciates that that’s a lot of scanners. The cost will be passed on to fliers (along with the sizeable delays they cause at the terminal). It is because of the cost issue that the Head of Interpol has said that expenditure on scanners is not a good use of law enforcement resources. But why put good money into something practical when there’s a more fashionable toy to be played with, which might make your government look decisive? It’s a classic example of the desire to be seen to be doing something.
If you’ve seen images from the scanners (and Google is filling up with them), you will know that they leave little to the imagination. For people with prosthetic body parts, with medical conditions, for those who are just plain modest, this is hard to contemplate. People in all categories have been in touch with us. Many who say that they are unconcerned by scanners vis a vis themselves find it difficult to contemplate scans of their partners or (particularly) their children. Some passengers won’t be upset by the scanners. Others will. Those who do object should not have to choose between their dignity and their flight. Unlike the Canadian or US authorities, the British government allows no exemptions for passengers selected for scans – they permit no alternative for people with moral objections, or for children, or for pregnant women.
We’re assured that mature, responsible, sensitive, trained professionals will operate the scanners. Such assurances should come with health warnings. One Heathrow ‘professional,’ John Laker, received just such training before working the scanners, but nevertheless took a picture of a colleague who entered the machine by mistake, telling her he loved ‘her massive t*ts.’ In Florida, Rolando Negrin went ‘postal’ and beat his colleagues who had professionally, maturely and responsibly mocked the size of his genitalia, revealed by the scanners. If this is how they treat one another, what will they do they do to the rest of us?
We have been given assurances that the images generated from scans will immediately be destroyed (first we were told that they could not store images at all, a claim disproven by documents obtained by the US Electronic Privacy Information Centre). Given that the machines have the capacity to take and retain images, one wonders how the non-retention policy is to be enforced, and how controllers can in the long term be stopped from simply taking pictures of the screen they’re watching with their mobile telephones. Furthermore, the British government’s record on data security and data loss is appalling. In 2006 HMRC lost the personal records of 25 million individuals, including their dates of birth, addresses, bank accounts and national insurance numbers when they lost the authority’s entire data relating to child benefit payments. In January 2008, a laptop computer containing the personal details of 600,000 people was lost by the MoD. It was one of 658 lost laptops.
The Equalities and Human Rights Commission has stated that scanners are potentially illegal on privacy grounds. For the same reason, the European Commission has questioned their necessity. There are alternatives. The British company Thruvision has created terahertz scanners (a milder form of infra-red) which create images which demonstrate objects of concern on a body outline without being graphic; no genitals are shown. I can see no proper reason to use the graphic version instead. Indeed, laws against child pornography and indecent imagery are arguably breached by the scanners: that the government didn’t even bother legislating to ensure that this point was covered speaks volumes for the attitude it had/has towards the rule of law.
It is true that the level of radiation to which one is exposed in scans is small. However, there’s a reason the doctor stands behind a screen when you’re x-rayed; even small doses, particularly when relatively frequent (as they might be for regular fliers) can be harmful, especially to some parts of the body (like the genitals). The levels estimated are compared to radiation incurred whilst flying – but this isn’t radiation absorbed instead of flying, it’s as well as flying. Some short haul pilots and cabin crew will be exposed to scans six or eight times a day. The Inter-Agency Committee on Radiation Safety includes the European Commission, International Atomic Energy Agency, Nuclear Energy Agency and the World Health Organization. The Committee has written a report that states that –
1) Air passengers should be made aware of the health risks of airport body screenings.
2) Governments must explain any decision to expose the public to higher levels of cancer-causing radiation.
3) Pregnant women and children should not be subject to scanning.
By failing to publicise the health risks, by failing to explain the danger, and worst of all by making scanning compulsory for all, the British Government is failing to do all of these things and is potentially jeopardising the health of vulnerable people. For two vulnerable groups, our government has made it compulsory to do that which the best available evidence says should not be done. The ThruVision alternative doesn’t come with radiation risks, either.
When the IRA was active, they posed a more real threat to the people of the United Kingdom than Al Qaeda & Co. – and they regularly delivered on that threat. We didn’t allow them to change our way of life to anything like the degree we now permit these terrorists to change our liberties and freedoms. They hate us because we are free. We should think about infringing our freedoms carefully in the face of their threat. After all, what sort of free society does the government think it’s protecting with these scanners? When we have to expose ourselves to a man at the airport in order to fly, perhaps the terrorists have won.
Alex Deane is a barrister, a former chief of staff to David Cameron, and, Director of Big Brother Watch.