It’s a classic case of bolting the barn door after the horses are gone. Politicians are angry that the “crotch bomber” (who tried to blow up an airplane of Christmas day) got through airport security with his explosives undetected, and have demanded that full-body scanners be placed in all airports. So far, 19 U.S. airports are using the scanners, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) hopes to put hundreds more in airports across the country.
Proponents of this technology argue that it’s worth sacrificing privacy (and modesty) for safety. But in their rush to do something policymakers be ignoring five big problems with rolling out this technology:
1. Manufacturers aren’t willing to fill orders. According to a spokesperson for Smiths Detection, a manufacturer of millimeter-wave body scanners, the scanner technology has not yet been certified as fit for purpose by national governments – and manufacturers will not invest in mass production until it has [New Scientist]. Until the TSA and the European Union certify the technology, don’t expect manufactures to rush into production, seeing as how the scanners cost around $125,000 each.
2. They won’t actually catch that many threats. According to a spokesperson for QinetiQ, another body scanner manufacturer, airport body scanners would be “unlikely” to detect many of the explosive devices used by terrorist groups [BBC News]. QinetiQ said the technology probably wouldn’t have detected the Christmas day underwear bomb. Neither would the scanners have caught the explosives from the 2006 airliner liquid bomb plot, nor the explosives used in the 2005 London Tube train bombing. The body scanners aren’t very useful for detecting liquids and plastics and can only help spotlight irregularities under a person’s clothes, said the spokesperson. Singling out every irregularity for further screening will place a heavy burden on airport security (read: bring a pillow with you to the airport).
3. The scanners may violate child pornography laws. A trial run of the scanners in Britain was only allowed to proceed after children under 18 were exempt from screening. The decision followed a warning from Terri Dowty, of Action for Rights of Children, that the scanners could breach the Protection of Children Act 1978, under which it is illegal to create an indecent image or a “pseudo-image” of a child [Guardian]. It’s not clear if children would continue to be exempt from screening should the scanners become widely used, or where the United States stands on screening children. (And then there’s other types of pornography to worry about–imagine the media frenzy that would ensue should a celebrity body scan make its way to the tabloids. The images are not supposed to be stored after their creation, but many critics say the security personnel analyzing the images are poorly monitored to ensure the scans are disposed properly.)
4. Other countries won’t use them. A year ago, Germany said “nein” to the idea of using full body scanners in its airports, saying the technology is little more than security theater. There is some indication that the German government has recently softened its stance, but its new position has a lot of “ifs.” German Interior Minister Thomas de Mazière said he is ready to introduce full body scanners if they are safe and “fully guarantee” the privacy rights of passengers. Wolfgang Bosbach, Bundestag interior committee chief, told Germany’s Tagesspiegel: “If this technology [full body scanners] has demonstrated its usefulness in practice, i.e. it works reliably and is quick, we should use it” [Christian Science Monitor]. See reasons 2 and 3 above.
5. Full body scanners can’t see inside your body. Generally, the machines can’t find items stashed in a body cavity. So the scanners wouldn’t stop at least one common smuggling method used by drug traffickers [New York Daily News]. It’s not hard to imagine terrorists following in drug smugglers’ footsteps–in fact, one already has. In September, an Al Qaeda suicide bomber hid explosives in his rectum in an attempt to kill a Saudi Prince (but because the bomber’s flesh absorbed most of the blast, he died and the prince survived).
The bottom line? Playing catch-up with evildoers probably won’t do much good, which is essentially what the TSA is doing with its embrace of full body scanning technology–along with its current rules about liquids and removing one’s shoes, for that matter.
80beats: Editing Goof Puts TSA Airport Screening Secrets on the Web
80beats: Are Digital Strip Searches Coming Soon To Every Airport Near You?
80beats: TSA Threatens Bloggers Who Published Security Info, Then Backs Off