Invasion of the Body Scanners

Airport body scanners have gained a lot of attention since their increasing use in North America and Europe in the wake of the failed attack by the “Underwear Bomber”.  Questions have been raised about whether the scanners invade an individual’s right to privacy and/or religious freedom, and if so, whether that invasion is justified.

Eight full-body scanners are scheduled to be in place at major Canadian airports by the end of March 2010, with 36 more to follow.  The scanners at issue are 44 millimetre wave imaging scanners that penetrate clothing to reveal an image of travellers’ bodies.  The image produced has  been described as similar to a “fuzzy photo negative”.  They are aimed at detecting ceramic weapons, liquid or plastic explosives, or drug packages that could be smuggled through conventional metal detectors.

In assessing whether this security measure is justified in infringing an individual’s right to privacy, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC) used a four-part test:

a)   Is the measure necessary to address a specific risk?

b)   Does it work?

c)   Is the loss of privacy proportionate to the identified need? and,

d)   Is there a less privacy-invasive way of achieving the same end?

When evaluating the impact of the scanners, the OPC considered evidence from the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) that there was a real risk of non-metallic explosives and weapons being brought onto aircraft by passengers.  The OPC also considered that CATSA agreed to:

  • Use the scanners only as a secondary method of searching passengers who have been through a metal detector and who (because of suspicion or at random) are asked to go through a secondary screen.
  • Give passengers a choice as to whether they would prefer to pass through the scanner or submit to a manual pat down.
  • Make the scanning process anonymous, so that no personal information (e.g. name, boarding pass number) will be associated with the scanned image.  Further, the security officer who views the image will be in a separate room and will not have a direct view of the scanned passenger.
  • Immediately delete images after they are viewed for concealed threats.

The OPC ultimately concluded that it does not object to the use of airport body scanners.  However, religious leaders have recently voiced objections.  In a speech on February 20, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, cautioned airport security officials that even when facing the threat of international terrorism, they should “never lose sight of respect for the primacy of the person.”   In a statement published on on February 10, 2010, the Fiqh Council of North America (FCNA)  stated that the use of the scanners is against the teachings of Islam, natural law and all religions and cultures that stand for decency and modesty.  The FCNA encourages Muslims to elect pat-down screening when given the option.

Because the scanners, at least in Canada, are being used as a secondary screening method, and passengers are given the option of alternatively electing a pat-down screening, it is unlikely that concerns about privacy or religion will restrict their use.  However, these concerns may drive the development of new, less invasive alternative technology.

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