Friday, March 19, 2010

Body Scanners Coming to an Airport Near You

O’Hare International Airport recently added full-body scanners to its security system in the hopes of preventing any future attacks on airlines. It is believed that the scanners will improve security because of their ability to show hidden objects on the body like plastic or chemical explosives and non-metallic weapons. Paid for with money from President Obama’s 2009 stimulus plan, each scanner costs between $130,000 and $190,000. So far, over 20 U.S. airports have received these scanners and many, many more are on their way to airports across the nation. While these body scanners have been available for years, deployment has been slowed because of privacy objections which center on the fact that the scanners use low dose X-rays that can see through passenger’s clothing and reveal the size and shape of the entirety of one’s body with clarity. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has denounced the machines as a “virtual strip search.”

Usage of the scanners varies at different airports. Some airports are using the scanners as their primary form of security, while others are using them as a secondary search mechanism, e.g. if someone fails a metal detector test or is randomly selected for the scan. Most airports with scanners, however, are moving toward using them as their primary form of security.

According to the
TSA (Transportation Security Administration), once scanned, images are sent to a remote location where a technician, who cannot see the passenger, examines the image and communicates, via wireless headset, with the officer assisting the passenger. To protect passenger privacy, millimeter wave technology blurs all facial features and deletes images from the system after the passenger has been cleared. Additionally, officers evaluating the scanner images are not allowed to have cameras, cell phones, or other photo-enabled devices in the resolution room that could be used to create a copy of the scan. If a passenger chooses not to go through the body scanner for whatever reason, they will “receive an equal level of screening, including a physical pat-down”. If this is the case, the TSA is equating a physical pat-down with a piece of equipment costing the equivalent of a house. This phrase alone exposes the TSA's blatantly irresponsible use of taxpayer dollars for the sake of a little more efficiency in airport security lines.

Despite these precautions, many are still weary that the scanners violate their rights. Numerous Muslim groups along with members of other Jewish and Christian faiths have expressed concern over whether or not the scanners violate their beliefs on modesty. In a Fox News
interview, CAIR-Chicago Executive Director Ahmad Rehab reiterated this idea by noting that the scanners “violate religious and privacy rights of Americans.”

One such incident of a privacy violation took place at London’s Heathrow Airport. There, a male security employee made lewd comments to a female colleague after she passed through a body scanner. This incident highlights some of the moral and ethical concerns over the scanners expressed by opponents. Although a harassment warning has been issued to the perpetrator, he retains his job despite a clear abuse of his position and overt disregard for the privacy of another human being.

Additionally, concerns over the safety of these machines have been stifled by scanner manufacturers, who insist that the machines are safe. However, a study conducted at Los Alamos National Laboratory found that the energy particles used to generate the nude image of the body can have a negative effect on intricate molecular processes involved in gene expression and DNA replication in the body. Without any clinical trials performed by a third party or FDA approval on these machines, there is currently no way to demonstrate that the scanners are safe for multiple use over time.

At a time when Muslims are already under so much scrutiny, they don’t want to have to make a choice between their religion and national security. Especially since there is doubt among experts, including the British Government, as to whether or not the Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, or others like him carrying low-density items would have been stopped by one of these scanners, it is important to really understand their effectiveness in preventing another attack before using it as a primary means of security. Already, a Muslim woman was banned from a flight to Pakistan after refusing to undergo a full-body scan at Manchester Airport in the U.K.

If history tells us anything, it is that terrorists have no problem adapting to new security measures, especially when they know what security officials are looking for. What if the next bomber with concealed explosives opts for a pat-down and is let through security? What will the next step be?
Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office says it best when she notes that “There is no one measure or magic solution to keeping us safe, and while our government should strive for the best security possible, it must adhere to respect Americans’ civil liberties." That being said, should we as Americans in a time of heightened economic and national security tension, rely so heavily on such a financially extravagant and easily avoidable means of keeping our skies safe?

For a full list of airports that are currently using full-body scanners and for more information on the scanners, please visit the
TSA website.

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