Searching Bodies: the civil liberties dilemma

One of the most fundamental elements of a screening checkpoint is the ability to determine whether or not an individual is carrying a prohibited or restricted item. The range of items we are now searching for at airports has grown over the years and many argue that the days of magnetometer inspection are now passé.

Granted that the current terrorist threats involve explosive devices – in a multitude of formats – chemical, biological and radiological weapons, as well as materials which, inflight, can be converted into improvised incendiary devices, should we really be restricting our efforts to detecting metallic items?

Then again, there appears to be no single technology which can address all threats. We have rolled out millimetre wave systems with much fanfare, yet they have elongated the time it takes to screen a passenger – if one include the time it takes to divest pocket contents prior to screening – and are unlikely to identify an explosive device concealed in a body cavity or surgically implanted. Furthermore, even CB-weaponry is likely to pass through millimetre wave portals undetected.

Objections to the deployment of advanced imaging technology (AIT), or body scanners to use common parlance, appear in abundance in social media and civil liberties groups have fuelled the flames by intimating both that their usage is unnecessary and that such examination is an invasion of privacy. As the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) points out, “Passengers expect privacy underneath their clothing and should not be required to display highly personal details of their bodies such as evidence of mastectomies, colostomy appliances, penile implants, catheter tubes and the size of their breasts or genitals as a pre-requisite to boarding a plane.” They don’t!

The industry appears to have caved in to the scaremongering and governments have resisted attempts to deploy the most effective screening technologies. As a result, we continue to utilise the least effective systems and pin our future aspirations on bureaucratic, data-driven processes which imply that they “know” people. Most disturbing of all, data profiling cannot be applied worldwide and will, in the near future, only serve, albeit with questionable effectiveness, the needs of the wealthy states in the developed world.