Article on body scanners

June 11, 2012 |

In the Sydney Morning Herald today there is a story on the introduction of body scanners at Australian Airports next month.

It provides:

CONTROVERSIAL full body scanners due to be introduced in airports next month will identify prosthesis wearers, including breast cancer survivors and transgender passengers.

Earlier this year the federal government announced that the new scanners to be installed in eight international terminals would be set to show only a generic stick figure image to protect passengers’ privacy.

But documents released under freedom of information show that in meetings with stakeholders, Office of Transport Security representatives confirmed the machines would detect passengers wearing a prosthesis.

This week Breast Cancer Network Australia said it had alerted its 70,000 members that prosthesis wearers should carry a letter from their doctor and speak to security staff before passing through the body scanner to ensure discreet treatment. While breast implants would not be detected, prosthetic breasts used by those who have had a mastectomy will be.

During the meetings, OTS officials confirmed the situation would also apply to transgender passengers.

Last week a spokesman for the Infrastructure Department said there were ”procedures currently in place for the appropriate clearing of medical devices and aids and these will continue largely unchanged”.

Groups including Muslims and civil libertarians were consulted by the Office of Transport Security and raised numerous concerns about the machines, including the potential for graphic images of naked passengers to be stored and the fact certain religions decreed that only a spouse was entitled to view their partner’s body from the navel to the knee area. The policy to use stick figure images was introduced to placate these privacy concerns.

Internal documents also revealed that a proposed privacy quality assurance program to check privacy issues was scrapped late last year.

The decision was revealed in correspondence between the OTS executive director, Paul Retter, and the Australian information commissioner, Professor John McMillan, in November.

A Transport Department spokesman said because the department had determined no personal information would be collected, stored or disclosed during the body scanning process, the national privacy principles did not apply, and both parties agreed to remove the item from the work plan.

The introduction of the scanners is a response to the failed 2009 Christmas Day underwear bombing attack on a US-bound airliner involving a passenger trying to detonate chemicals hidden in his underwear and in a syringe.

Airport body scanners are not as effective a means of deterring or catching terrorists as has been touted in the past.  There is an element of security theater involved. In a Wired article last year (found here) the following flaws in the system was highlighted:
Some research claims the machines — which produce a virtual nude image of the body — might not detect explosives or even guns taped to a person’s body. The U.S. government has reservations about their efficacy, as well. And even proponents of the technology concede the machines are not designed to detect so-called “booty bombs” — explosive devices concealed inside the human body.
The Government Accountability Office — Congress’ investigative arm — concluded in a report last year that AIT scanners might well not have found the explosives concealed in the underwear of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. The Nigerian tried to detonate plastic explosives on a flight to Detroit from Amsterdam on Christmas 2009. (He did not go through a body scanner in Amsterdam.)
A study published in the November edition of the Journal of Transportation Security suggested terrorists might fool the Rapiscan machines and others like it employing the X-ray “backscatter” technique. A terrorist, the report found, could tape a thin film of explosives of about 15-20 centimeters in diameter to the stomach and walk through the machine undetected.
The report said an explosive, such as pentaerythritol tetranitrate, “would be invisible to this technology, ironically, because of its large volume, since it is easily confused with normal anatomy.” The report found that “a wire or a box-cutter blade taped to the side of the body, or even a small gun in the same location, will be invisible.”
The Economist has highlighted the limitations in AQAP tries again where it said:
For all the brilliance of the intelligence work that thwarted it, the plot may still achieve its secondary aim of making air travel an even more miserable experience than it is already. It seems all too likely that none of the routine checks carried out at airports, even the 700 full-body scanners that America’s Transportation Security Administration (TSA) deployed after Mr Abdulmutallab’s aborted efforts, would detect the PETN explosive that has become the terrorists’ weapon of choice. Bruce Schneier, a security expert—who trounced Kip Hawley, a former head of the TSA, by 87% to 13% in a recent Economist online debate on the proposition that changes to airport security since September 11th 2001 have done more harm than good—has written that only swabs and dogs can spot PETN. “What’s next?” asks Mr Schneier. “Strip searches? Body-cavity searches?”
The usual claim is that extra security is better than the alternative.  Always flawed logic but in the realm of public opinion and media coverage quite soothing and persuasive.  What really works, and works well, is good intelligence, a professional police force which is properly resourced to put in the hours needed to identify dangers.  That doesn’t require shiny new bits of technology or ever more onerous laws.  Civil liberties and security can easily, and must, live side by side.
The immediate concern about the roll out of airport scanners (which are banned in Europe, see here) is the need to develop proper privacy protections and practices.  That the Transport Department believes, as the SMH reports, there is no privacy implications in the use of scanners defies belief, common sense and good business practice.  On that basis there will be no records taken which identifies any party, whether it is in digital or written form.  It does not have to be the scanners themselves which store the data.
That the Information Commissioner took such an anemic approach is very disappointing.  But not altogether surprising.
The other issue is the abuse in the use of the system.  The system has already been abused.  A for example is that of Ellen Terrell described in Airport security makes married mother go through body scanner THREE times… after telling her she had a ‘cute’ figure.  An airport worker in the United Kingdom took a photo of someone being scanned, in Airport worker given police warning for ‘misusing’ body scanner.


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