Airport Body Scanners: Useful Technology or Invasion of Privacy?

Alex Gloor is a JD student at Osgoode Hall Law School

Questions about an individual’s right to privacy in light of technological advances have persisted for over a century. Government sanctioned uses of¬†invading technologies have proved to be especially contentious. This debate has been rekindled as governments worldwide have proposed full body scanners as a means of heightening airline security in response to the recent Northwest Airlines bomb scare on Christmas Day.

The Harper government has recently approved the use of body scanners at Canadian airports. These scanners produce a three-dimensional outline of the body with the goal of revealing concealed packages. However, privacy concerns are also raised as private matters such as genitalia are also revealed by the scanners. While some countries have discussed blurring the genital region, this idea was rejected in Canada as it would defeat the purpose of the scan.This privacy concern is elevated in the case of children, where these images may violate child pornography laws.

A number of measures have been implemented in Canada attempting to address the privacy issues, such as:

  • Children under 18 are exempt from scans
  • The officer viewing the image will not see the traveler being scanned
  • Only people singled out for extra screening are scanned
  • People have the option of a physical search instead of the scan
  • After the scan, the image not to be stored, printed or transmitted

Even still, a number of interesting questions persist. One issue is the potential leak of “celebrity” scans. Despite the assurances, at least one terrorism expert claims it is plausible that such scans could be released, surely to quickly find their way onto youtube and TMZ.

The extent to which the scanners will improve security is also questionable. First of all, only a selected few will get scanned. Secondly, and more importantly, is the effectiveness of the scanners in finding potential threats. Despite the sudden surge in interest in the scanners following the Christmas Day incident, it is reported that the scanners would not have been effective in detecting the explosives brought on board that flight.

I would also question the ability of operators to stick to their mandate of not associating a particular image with a particular passenger. A system such as this that is designed to reveal concealed substances will surely come up with false positives. Travelers with concealed medical devices, such as ostomy bags, catheters or urine leg bags spring to mind. The subsequent physical searches that may follow a screening of these passengers would be particularly embarrassing and violating.

This effectiveness question leads into the related issue of cost. Thus far, 44 scanners have been ordered at a cost of $250,000 each. Given potential liability issues, the selective use of the scanners and their questionable effectiveness, is an $11,000,000 price tag really justified? Magnifying this issue is the fact that none of the attacks spurring the use of these scanners have targeted Canada. While it has been suggested that the money would be better spent on other intelligence issues, it seems apparent that this is money spent solely to maintain positive international relations.

Finally, that only selected people will be screened leads to the possibility of racial profiling. This fear may be heightened given the recent US announcement that travelers coming from fourteen “high-risk” countries will face increased security measures, including full body pat-downs.

This whole situation is perfectly encapsulated by Benjamin Franklin’s statement “those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety”. Unfortunately, terrorism always has and will exist. Just because we have the technology does not mean that it has to be used with such recklessness. While I am not suggesting that preventable attacks should not be stopped, there must be a limit to the freedoms sacrificed for minor increases in safety.