Naked airport scanners generating controversy of all kinds on eve of rollout

The Canadian Press ~ The News
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OTTAWA - Though it's been tested at just one small Canadian airport, the scanner that sees through clothes is already fast becoming the most controversial security tool in national aviation annals.
First off, there's what one expert calls the machine's obvious "ick factor."
Security analysts and civil rights advocates are also at odds over the scanner's ability to detect deadly weapons and, even if it can, whether improving airport security is the solution when poor intelligence work led to the recent near-disaster over Michigan.
The only thing everyone - including Transport Minister John Baird - seems to agree on: there's no magic bullet to keeping the skies safe.
The government announced plans Tuesday to install 44 machines across the country that will generate three-dimensional images of air travellers' bodies. The move follows a trial run of the so-called millimetre-wave scanners at the Kelowna, B.C., airport.
The aim is to detect the sort of explosives sewn into the lining of a Nigerian man's underwear that brought a Detroit-bound flight to the brink of calamity on Christmas Day.
Micheal Vonn of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association says the government has rushed to embrace a completely unproven technology that has trouble detecting plastics, powders and liquids.
"It's a fiasco," she said, calling for parliamentary hearings to weigh the merits before proceeding with the multimillion-dollar purchase.
"What is the hysteria and the urgency?"
Critics say the machines are being rolled out as a solution when the real problem is an intelligence failure - the inability of security officials to properly flag 23-year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, whose own father warned might be a dangerous radical.
"This doesn't really give any guarantee that it'll work any better," said Roch Tasse of the Ottawa-based International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group.
"I think they should fix the problem rather than just use it as a pretext to put more things in place."
Vonn agrees that targeting everyone is a waste of resources.
"There's no safety benefit to looking at hundreds of millions of people naked who are completely innocent," she said. "If you are looking for a needle in haystack, you don't add more hay."
Officials say screeners viewing the scanner images will be in a separate room from the traveller under scrutiny to safeguard their privacy.
It is still unclear, however, whether faces and genitals will be visible, how often the machines will be used, and if children will be subjected to scanning.
"The ickiness really seems to be a problem," said Mark Salter, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa's school of political studies.
As a result, the government should fully explain the new technology to the travelling public, he said.
Salter said he believes the scanners are a technological leap forward that could help detect dangerous substances, calling them a "quantum leap forward."
But he takes issue with the current system of assessing the risk posed by different passengers, saying the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority lacks the needed information to truly determine who is a threat.
That means everyone needs to be thoroughly screened on an equal footing, Salter said.
"That becomes a new way of thinking about efficiency and effectiveness, rather than trying to do risk management."
The government may have taken a step in that direction Tuesday, outlining plans for a passenger behaviour observation program to key in on suspicious actions that might indicate a security issue - for instance, someone wearing heavy clothes on a hot day.
The approach relies on elements of the Israeli air security system, which involves detailed, repeat questioning to detect unduly nervous passengers.
Salter says passengers must embrace and understand any new security measures.
"If you explain to the public reasonably and rationally what the process is, and what the reason is for doing it, then people not only comply but co-operate."

Organizations: British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, University of Ottawa Canadian Air Transport Security Authority

Geographic location: OTTAWA, Michigan, Kelowna Detroit

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Recent comments

  • No Way to the Scanner
    March 01, 2010 - 14:40

    I've just cancelled three flights to the USA because of the new security measures. There is no way I am not going to the bathroom for the last hour or else have someone 'accompany me' as I was told by Air Canada. Neither will a bunch of people in a scanning room see me naked. I am not a criminal I have human rights and these are violations. I will go to Mexico and Cuba and Europe instead now.