P: Should body scanners be installed at Canadian airports?

Alex Giroux - 4B Mechanical
Posted on: January 20, 2010

The airline industry has long relied on metal detectors to prevent terrorist attacks and hijackings. However, on Christmas Day 2009, a passenger on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit attempted to blow up the plane he was on, using materials that did not register on metal detectors. Clearly the technology in use is outdated and a new alternative should be found.

The solution being put forward by many airline security organizations is to purchase and install full body scanners that take a picture of you, similar to a CAT scan or an MRI. However, instead of a picture of your insides, these scanners take a picture of you under your clothes. Yes, naked. This has many people up in arms, primarily over privacy concerns and the fear that images of minors will be used as child pornography. Taking all things into consideration, as long as there are precautions taken to protect the scannees’ privacy and dignity, I’d say that full body scanners are a good thing. I travel fairly frequently, and after an interesting incident that occurred at Pearson Airport prior to flying home for Christmas, I’m all up for not being frisked whenever my belt, my shoes, my earrings, my watch, or the metal samples that I forgot to take out of my pocket set off the metal detectors. OK, that last one hasn’t happened to me, but it’s a possibility. And let’s face it. Yes, you can teach someone how to properly conduct a pat-down, but when there are security lines from the checkpoint to the other side of the airport, somebody’s going to get unexpectedly groped. And chances are, while the person who forgot to take off their belt is being frisked, the guy who’s the REAL security threat is going to waltz on by the screeners with nary a care in the world. Remember, metal detectors are only effective at detecting metal. They’re not so good at finding plastic explosives sewn into someone’s underwear.

Yes folks, I’m tired of risking being frisked in front of the other 50 people waiting in line because I forgot to take off my belt. I’m tired of waiting in line while that little old lady who’s had both her hips replaced is being searched because she set off the metal detector, even though she’s explained that she’s had hip replacements and she’s clearly not a threat, since she can’t run due to said hip replacements. There are definitely alternatives to these body scanners. There’s an article that’s been circulating the internet about the security measures at Ben Guiron Airport in Israel. Rather than one level of screening, there are multiple minor checkpoints there, with highly trained personnel staffing the checkpoints. At any one of these checkpoints, personnel are authorized to pull people over for additional screening. This results in a very high level of security. However, it takes time to implement this system, to set up checkpoints and to hire and train personnel. I’ve also flown out of the New Delhi airport, where they had screened off areas for men and women, and they patted down EVERYONE who was entering the secure area.

Finally, public response to these scanners has, to my knowledge not been great. There are privacy concerns. But the fact remains that there is a price to be paid for security. I can’t imagine people here in Canada reacting any better to implementing a system of multiple checkpoints. In other countries, being patted down or going through checkpoints is just a fact of life, and if you are not a threat then there is no reason you should be worried. The full body scanners are programmed not to store images (though I can accept that there may be a manual option to store an image of a person who is deemed a threat), and the person observing the images to assess threats will be in a separate room, so that the images of people will not be visible to the total strangers who are also going through security screening. Passengers are also able to opt to be patted down by security personnel instead of passing through the scanner. However, it has been my experience that most airport security checkpoints are not equipped with a separate, screened off area to pat down those who are selected as it is, so chances are you’re not actually retaining any sense of privacy.

The other concern is that images of those under 18 will be used as child pornography. Again, the images collected by the scanners are not stored, and there are safeguards taken to protect the identity of the passengers. However, I do admit that this is a valid concern, particularly when it comes to selecting and training those that will be observing the scanned images. Since this does leave a rather horrible loophole for terrorists, I suggest that parents traveling with small children and those under 18 all be subject to additional screening and bag searches.

Full body scanners in airports are not an option that should be chosen lightly. But given recent events, our only other option right now would be to require all airline passengers to wear Speedos. And that can’t be a good option.