Full body scanners: the next generation?

Dubious though we are about full body scanners at airports, they do at least have the benefit of being optional (in the US, where you can opt instead for a pat-down that has been described as tantamount to sexual abuse) or administered randomly (in the UK, where you don’t have the option of refusing them unless you’d rather not catch your flight). A rather complimentary article in The Telegraph today describes a new development in the world of airport security — a prototype of which has been demonstrated in Singapore.

In theory, the new scanner, due to be trialled within 18 months, sounds like a great idea. Instead of removing shoes and belts, submitting hand luggage to an x-ray, and passing through at least a metal detector, passengers pass through a kind of tunnel that carries out all the necessary checks in around five seconds. Passengers are pre-screened to determine the level of check they’ll need to undergo.

If safe and administered neutrally, these smart arches could cut down waiting time and virtually eliminate those annoying ‘security theatre’ lines that currently build up in airports. The Telegraph article completely fails to mention such concerns, however, leaving us with two initial concerns.

Firstly, how can we trust that passing through these ‘smart arches’ will be safe? How, indeed, can we trust our governments to tell us the truth about whether they’re safe? In the US, the TSA has already come in for criticism after making ‘mistakes’ in calculating how much radiation a person absorbs passing through a scanner. Naturally, they’re keen to assure the public that the scanners are perfectly benign.

So, what methods do the new smart arches employ? How much radiation will they train on people who pass through them? That’s the first big question.

Secondly, how do we know that governments and security agencies will be impartial in gathering data and determining who meets their criteria? The idea that travellers will be separated according to the perceived level of risk they present opens the way for all sorts of discrimination, on the grounds of racism, gender, income level, and numerous other arbitrary categorisations. Used injudiciously, these scanners could prove so divisive that they actually feed resentment.

As yet, we see no move on the part of either governments or the operators of the smart arches to reassure us that these concerns are being taken seriously. It’s too early to condemn smart arches, but we’ll certainly be keeping a close eye on their development.

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