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  • BIOETHICS FORUM ESSAY

Full Body Scans Coming to Your Local Airport

In time for the holiday travel season, airports around the country are installing full body scanners for added security. There are 317 scanners at 65 U.S. airports (a list can be found here); 450 are planned by the end of the year, purchased with stimulus bill funds, and 950 by the end of 2011. Scanners are being used in airports in several other countries, including Canada, the U.K., Finland, the Netherlands, France, Italy, and Russia.

Unlike traditional airport metal detectors, full body scanners detect objects made from a range of materials concealed underneath travelers’ clothes, including liquid and plastic explosives. Some of the scanners use x-rays and others millimeter wave technology (the electromagnetic waves that power cell phones and microwave ovens).

Despite the promise that they can make air travel safer, the scanners have met with about as much enthusiasm as a toxic waste dump. They’ve been called “creepy and ineffective,” based on evidence that they show the outlines of genitalia but fail to reveal some bomb components.

There are also concerns about personal privacy, since the scans, in addition to showing the naked body, expose other intimate details, including medical implants and adult diapers. (Google “airport body scanners” and a collection of photos appears high on the results list.) Furthermore, there are questions about whether the images can be stored and misused. And there are possible health risks from the radiation exposure, particularly to children, pregnant women, and other vulnerable travelers.

The Transportation Security Administration, which is in charge of purchasing and deploying the scanners, asserts that they are safe for all passengers “including children, pregnant women, and individuals with medical implants” and that privacy is protected. “The image cannot be stored, transmitted or printed, and is deleted immediately once viewed. Additionally, there is a privacy algorithm applied to blur the image,” the agency says on its Web site.

But many are unconvinced. Last summer, three U.S. senators sent a letter to Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Security, that expressed concern about the health risks from radiation exposure and asked that the TSA’s chief medical officer review those risks to travelers and airport personnel. A recent New York Times article said that the scanners have not been adequately tested for safety.

Ethical issues about privacy and misuse of personal information have been raised by HIDE: Homeland Security, Biometric Identification & Personal Detection Ethics, an international project supported by the European Commission. An article on full body scanners in its most recent newsletter, written by Ross White of The Hastings Center, said the possibilities of harm and violation of privacy exist even if the scanned images are not stored. “The potential for individuals to be harmed or to take offense at what others see about their bodies was revealed a few months ago when an employee of the U.S. Transportation Security Agency (TSA) beat a coworker with a baton after the coworker saw a scan of his body and ridiculed him about the size of his genitalia,” the article says.

The article also points out that full body scans are at odds with some religious and other philosophical beliefs about people viewing other people’s bodies. Airports in Dubai have banned the scanners because they violate Islamic ethical principles. And in the U.S., some may consider the scanners a violation of their Constitutional protection against “unreasonable searches and seizures.”

Travelers in the U.S. can opt out of full body scans and have a physical pat-down instead. But exercising that option has proved difficult for some people. Last month a pregnant womanwas denied her request at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. This week, a reporter for the New York Times recounted his intimidating experience, also at O’Hare, when he asked to opt out: “I was required to stand still while I received a rough pat-down by a man whose resume, I suspected, included experience at a state prison. ‘Hold your pants up!’ he ordered me. What did I do to deserve this?”

Fear of terrorism is reasonable. Fear of the technology and the authorities in place to protect us from terrorism is not. The HIDE newsletter article got it right with some commonsense recommendations for balancing public security with personal privacy and dignity.

Proposed operating procedures on the use of scanners should be made public and open to public comment. Travelers must have the choice of an alternative security screening. I would add that the choice should be easily honored. Those precautions should help lower the stress level of travel, before, during, and after the holidays.

Susan Gilbert is editor of Bioethics Forum.

Published on: November 8, 2010
Published in: Bioethics

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