Should Airports See You Naked?

Following an attempted attack on a flight to Detroit in 2009, a decision to increase aviation security measures was made, leading to the introduction of security scanners. In the UK, these were first deployed at Heathrow and Manchester airports in 2010 and more were rolled out in 2013. However, there have been concerns raised by passengers such as the health implication of exposure to radiation and infringement of fundamental human rights such as privacy and data protection.

Against Security Scanners

Picture 1

The manufacturers of these security scanners claim that they emit a considerably low level of radiation, but is there an acceptable level of radiation? Any voluntary or involuntary exposure to radiation above the minimum threshold is unacceptable. In addition to this, the long-term effects of exposure to radiation from scanners are still unknown. This applies especially to airport security staff, flight crews and frequent flyers who have a higher chance of going through the scanners. A study has shown that, in addition to pregnant women and children, 1 in 20 people are more sensitive to radiation. This results in a significant number of people possibly being affected considering that approximately 3 billion people fly annually. In fact, a study in the US has proven that an additional 6-100 cases of cancer per year have been reported due to security scanners. One also has to consider the possibility of a system malfunction. This could expose an individual to significantly higher levels of radiation, which can eventually cause cell mutation, cancer and internal heating of body tissues or organs, causing burns.

With regards to privacy, security scanners produce naked images of an individual, breaching fundamental human rights. Having to forcibly expose physical features (transgender, deformity) and medical conditions (disability, mastectomy), which a person might consider private, goes against the right to respect for private life. Additionally, security scanners violate rights of individuals of certain religious beliefs. Muslims, for example, believe that exposure of certain body parts is only allowed in a marriage. Therefore, scanners deny them the right of freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Furthermore, scanning selected individuals based on race, genetic features and sexual orientation is considered an act of discrimination. This results in certain social groups being inappropriately targeted, which goes against their right to equal treatment.

Images produced by the security scanners should not be stored to ensure data protection of passengers. However, US Marshals admitted to storing approximately 35,000 images produced by security scanners. Similarly, there is a potential risk of security staff misusing the scanners by selling images of celebrities to the media. Would you feel safe passing through the scanner? If security scanners cannot ensure data protection, they should not be implemented.

According to the Protection of Children Act 1978 in the UK, it is illegal to produce indecent images of a child as it is considered as child pornography. To ensure that security staff do not breach child pornography laws, an exemption was made for under 18s to bypass scans. Terrorists could take advantage of this ruling by recruiting children, defeating the purpose of the scanners as an effective method of eliminating security threats faced by the aviation industry.

Studies have shown that the false alarm rate can be as high as 54% depending on the type of scanner, which consequently is time consuming as passengers have to be hand searched. Furthermore, an Israeli security expert claims that scanners can be ineffective in detecting explosives. In his conversation with the Canadian House of Commons, he stated he could walk through these scanners with enough explosives to bring down a Boeing 747 while remaining undetected. Moreover, scanners are unable to detect contraband hidden inside body cavities, which is a smuggling method.

With all the health, privacy and reliability issues of security scanners, why are they still being used?

For Security Scanners

Humans are always exposed to natural sources of radiation. At higher altitudes i.e. during flights, an individual is exposed to four times the natural level of radiation per minute. However, security scanners that use backscatter technology only expose a person to radiation equivalent to 3-10 minutes of flight time. For example, a passenger on a 6-hour flight is exposed to a negligible increase of less than 1% radiation. One would need to walk through a security scanner 1,000 times to be exposed to the same level of radiation as a chest X-ray.

Enhanced airport security to protect the public justifies the means of using scanners regardless of potential privacy issues. Airport operators must conform to the Code of Practice for security scanners, which states that individuals must not be selected on the basis of personal characteristics, hence avoiding any form of discrimination.

The scanners can detect non-metals, which was previously not possible using metal detectors, thus increasing contraband detection. High false alarm rates can be attributed to the technology being in its early stages. This indicates that the system is thorough and leaves little to chance. Criminals are finding cleverer ways of concealing dangerous items and “false alarms” are helpful in identifying these instances.

The introduction of Automatic Threat Recognition (ATR) software allows for data from scanners to be interpreted automatically, avoiding human interaction. If something suspicious is found, instead of a graphic image, the area of concern is flagged on a stick-figure. Immediately upon completion of scanning and analysis, in all cases, all data relating to the individual is deleted which prevents images being saved or shared. Implementation of this technology ensures data protection.

Both the detection and operational capabilities are continuously being improved as engineers are looking to integrate Artificial Intelligence into ATR technology to differentiate between common and dangerous items a passenger is carrying. This will ensure every passenger, including children, is scanned safely resulting in enhanced security whilst eliminating discrimination and privacy issues.

Picture 2

Additionally, security scanners eliminate human contact from strip searches if an individual requires additional screening. If passengers are discontent, they can opt out of scanning and be privately searched instead. Nevertheless, a study in the US showed that 99% of passengers prefer going through scanners over strip searches.

Ever since security scanners were implemented, there have been no reported cases of passengers successfully smuggling explosives into the airline cabin. It is therefore evident that security scanners are effective in enhancing airport security.

The security of the many is more important than the privacy concerns of the few. Therefore, airports SHOULD see you “naked”.

Vimanyu Beedasy, Ru Shian Sim

Rasan Chandra, Thatchanamurthi Naidu Selvarajan


8 thoughts on “Should Airports See You Naked?

  1. The use of security scanners in airports have so far given mitigated effects given the rightly pointed out health and privacy concerns. Though for security purposes at times such measures are necessary these should be weighed against the benefits that such measures give. The radiation issue is among the most crucial ones because although we are talking of radiation related to security scanner we have to bear in mind all the other equipment that are located in the airport area that also emit radiation. The cumulative levels of radiation surely go well beyond the level that only the security scanner emits. We should also not forget that health hazards regarding radiation is not restricted to the level of exposure. Time during which the individual is exposed per day, the number of times that individual is exposed,the sensitivity of the person to radiation, his tolerance to radiation are all factors that need to be considered. It has to be borne in mind that today the airport area is flooded with wireless networks, all of which do emit considerable amount of radiation.
    Concerning privacy issues, we should all bear in mind the amount of sensitive information that are captured through this process. Whether we are making judicial use of the captured information or not can never be ascertained despite all the comforts that the competent authorities may provide. We all know that there are wide range of legislations and regulations that can demonstrate that authorities are with the required legal framework with the use of security scanners. However, are we sure the person’s or authorities dealing with security scanners are making use of the information captured in strict accordance with the laws and regulations. Worse if the captured information is transferred to other parties and not to be too sarcastic, if the captured information is shared with friendly countries all fighting for a common cause like the fight against terrorism. We are all aware of the level of corruption that prevails in all countries of the world and should this not cast doubts on the proper use of captured information from security scanners.
    From a technological point of view, all technology, be it the most sophisticated one, is never fool- proof. So what if the specified parameters go out of bounds even for a small period of time before this is detected.
    I am of view that technological advancements are crucial to alleviate the burden of those people who deal with security in the airports but this should be balanced against crucial issues of radiation thresholds and privacy concerns. What airports should do is to increase awareness of all people in the airport of the health concerns of radiation from security scanners and the related privacy issues and give the choice to the people as to whether the accept the facts or not. If not then airports should provide alternatives which had proved their efficiency in the past when she curity scanners were not existing. By the way, do all airports use security scanners and is there really a need to see all passengers naked?


  2. On some other level of thoughts on this issue, do the relevant airport authorities and people manipulating the security scanners are fully trained to handle these equipment, especially if they are malfunctioning. We all know that today governments and organisations are now reducing costs and optising on human capital. One preson is now required to perform duties that previously several persons were doing. Such persons are also working continuously for longer hours. So what about the effectiveness in the performance. The ambient conditions of work and the working environment in itself are issues that are closely related to the security scanners


  3. This article is a bit fuzzy regarding radiation. There are two types of scanner – xray and milllimetre wave. Both produce ‘radiation’, but one is like a chest x-ray and one is electromagnetic (EM) – like a radar or a mobie phone. in terms of potential health risks, they are quite different. The Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) has an on-going programme to investigate potential health impacts of EM fields from mobile phones, masts and power cables. So far there is no evidence of detrimental effects to health. In the X-ray system, the risks are small, assuming the system is designed to fail safe. Given how many people get X-rayed at hospitals and dentists each day, and the continuous use of xray machines at airports to scan hand luggage, we can assume that the probability of catastrophic failure is small.
    The picture in the article with a intimately ‘3D’ image of the subject is from a millimetre wave system – according to, the xray systems produce a 2D image.
    This means that the X-ray systems are slightly less intrusive, and very slightly more risky. On a perceptual level, I would rather be scanned by radio waves than X-rays, irrespective of the mathematics. I suspect that regular travellers would be the same, until they compared the pictures.
    Its seems a relatively trivial change to pixellate sensitive areas of the image for the operators. As the system automatically highlights areas of concern, this would not have much impact on the detection of hidden items.


  4. We live in a world where we cannot afford to stay behind of any advances in technology. Scanners are commonly used in all security services and rightly so. People are exposed to so much radiation nowadays through their mobile phones and computers. Most of them are often not aware that they are exposed to such radiation, even less the health aissues. If these scanners can help tightening the controls over whatever transits through airports, then maybe it is worth exploring the ways in which it can be used. After all, the volume of people passing through airports and the extent of damage that can be caused by explosives is not minor. In the event that an attack occurs at an airport resulting in loss of life, will we not ask ourselves whether we could have prevented this or not. It is true that concerns over the use or misuse of these images are justified but these are not problems that cannot be solved through stringent controls over data storage and laws.


  5. The use of scanners are a vital tool to halt the potential carrying of explosives and contraband on board flights. The level of radiation that an individual is exposed to during he scanning process seems negligible, and it is something that can be hopefully minimised in the future with the emergence of new technology.

    Privacy may be an issue which comes up in relation to these scanners, which could be overcome by proper implementation of the threat recognition software, which serves as a filtering process and if there is a positive detection only then the “naked” image of the individual is examined or a manual search conducted. Perhaps these “naked” images only be examined by a select few highly trained members of airport security who are made well aware of data protection and privacy and the severe penalties which ensue if a breach were to occur. Should these images only be examined by a member of the police force?

    In conclusion, the implementation of body scanners in airports all around the world is fundamental towards creating stricter aviation security and would be in the best interests in terms of protection of the billions of individuals who fly every year.


  6. No. In my opinion, hand held scanners are safe enough as we’ve not seen many cases where contraband has been smuggled through undetected. That’s why I believe security scanners should not be implemented especially at the cost of our privacy.


  7. Human rights are primordial, one has the right not to accept to be seen naked, but here, it is the security of all which matters the most.

    Therefore, if someone does not want to be seen naked, alternatives should be provided, you either accept to be radiated or you accept a strip search. In both case, the person in charge of seeing you ‘naked’ should be employed under specific conditions. He/She should have ethics and his job should also be governed by strict laws. Failing to do the work as required should result in severe sanctions and should not be considered as a simple misdemeanour.

    Concerning the radiation, if someone is willing to travel on an airplane and be subject to radiation which he may be unconsciously aware of, it should not be a problem for him to be scanned. Everyday everyone is subject to radiation; mobile phones for example. Regular servicing on the scanners would certainly prevent any incidents. Also, current technology does allow technicians to know exactly the level of radiation there are exposing on an individual, if done correctly, there should not be any incident.


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