Invasion of the Body Scanners

As we enter the busy holiday travel season, millions will pass through airport scanners. But do they know the risks?
Michael Mehta, Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Thompson Rivers University critiques the rise of security measures in the fight against terrorism.

The war on terror has turned the western world into a society obsessed with risk, and one eager to shed important values like privacy. Terrorism is the ultimate zero sum game, and our recent preoccupation with it pits security against privacy, where gains in security are often made at the expense of privacy. In an effort to create the illusion of security, many countries have introduced body scanner technology into airports with little critical reflection on the unanticipated consequences of playing into the “politics of fear.” Body scanners have the potential to increase the collective radiation dose to the population, and also represent an unacceptable intrusion upon the rights of the individual.

Whole body imaging provides high-quality renderings of the human body in either two or three dimensions. From a screening perspective, they are demonstrably superior to traditional metal detection systems that suffer from low reliability and sensitivity for discovering weapons with small amounts of metal, ceramic weapons, explosive materials, and chemical and biological threats.

There are two general types of scanners that have been deployed in airports. Backscatter devices use low-intensity x-ray beams, while millimetre wave devices use non-ionizing radio frequency waves in the 30 to 300 GHz range. Due to the high-quality images produced by these devices, screeners can check passengers for contraband and weapons, but can also view exquisitely detailed images of breast prostheses, colostomy bags for those with colon cancer, and they can even measure the depth of a woman’s navel, the width of a man’s penis, and possibly even see vasectomy scars or ascertain whether a hymen is still intact. This level of detail is far richer than anything available previously with screening technology, and it has led critics to call this a virtual strip search.

It’s true that technology now exists for overlaying “modesty filters” or virtual “fig leaves” on private parts, the operator of the device is physically separated from the screening area, and it is claimed that images are not stored or transmitted; however, trust in techno-culture is likely at an all time low, and renewed efforts to enhance security will probably continue to drive many people away from air travel.

Backscatter devices produce two-dimensional images; the x-rays do not penetrate the body, but bounce off skin. Since these devices involve exposure to ionizing radiation, many people will come into contact with small doses, thus generating a larger population-wide cumulative effect. A 2010 report by the Inter-Agency Committee on Radiation Safety concluded that although the radiation dose from body scanners is “extremely small,” the health risks associated with screening cannot be completely understood at this point in time. The report recommended that pregnant women and children should avoid scanners, and suggested that air passengers should be provided with health risk information before making a decision on whether to be scanned or not.

By contrast, the scientific evidence of the risks of exposure to millimetre wave technology is even less clear. Research on the interaction of millimetre-wavelengths, which can penetrate 1 to 2 mm of skin, and the human eye show that certain body tissues might be particularly susceptible. Although it is commonly asserted that the radio frequency radiation emitted by a millimetre wave scanner is less than the amount emitted by a cell phone, this claim obscures the fact that more comprehensive study is required on the biological effects of exposure to millimetre waves, and more targeted research is required on how such exposure might increase the risk of cancer, accelerate the rate of tumor progression, and perhaps unzip double-stranded DNA in a way that could interfere with processes of gene expression and DNA replication.

Until then, there can be no informed consent since the risks are poorly explained, the benefits are non-quantifiable, and it seems unlikely that air passengers will be given a choice of entering a backscatter or millimetre wave device at every airport equipped with scanning technology.

Body scanners invade our privacy on multiple levels. They are at the cusp of a shift toward a biometric world where our bodies become “passwords” and our privacy becomes non-existent. Since these devices facilitate electronically-mediated strip searches, we need to be reminded that the courts in Canada have consistently found that strip searches are only legal under very well defined conditions, and that Section 8 of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees that “Everyone has the right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure.” Strip searches are only legal when performed on someone who has been found guilty of a crime, or when someone has been arrested and there are reasonable grounds to believe that they are carrying a weapon.

Body scanning in airports directly violates the essence of these tenets, and raises the question: What’s next? If we passively accept this technology, we can expect to see mobile scanners on the streets, in schools, at sporting events, and elsewhere in the near future.


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