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
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.
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