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4th Dec 2016

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EU airports must offer alternative to naked scanners, says US

  • A carnival event in Cologne, Germany mocking the privacy issue raised by full body scanners (Photo: Flickr/RuckSackKruemel)

The US says it has more privacy protection measures for air passengers going through full body scanners than Europe.

Recognising the "potential for misuse," the US government has gone ahead with use of the controversial full body scanners under strict privacy provisions, an American official speaking to a group of European journalists said on Monday (21 June).

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"There is more privacy protection in place in the US than in Europe, because we embedded those provisions before rolling out the system," said Mary Ellen Callahan, in charge of privacy and data protection at the Department of Homeland Security.

Controversial for their capacity to produce accurate naked images of one's body, the bulky devices are meant to detect any metals, liquids or plastics hidden under the clothes. They have increasingly become a common feature in major air hubs such as London's Heathrow, Amsterdam's Schiphol or Chicago International.

Last year, the US authority in charge of transport security (TSA) bought 150 scanners in September using €20 million from the federal stimulus package. It plans to buy 300 more this year and 500 next year.

Finland, France and Italy have also started testing the devices, based either on low x-ray or radio wave technology.

Their deployment was speeded up after an embarrassing incident in December last year, when a Nigerian managed to board a US-bound plane in Amsterdam with liquid explosives hidden under his clothes.

Meanwhile, the European Commission last week came up with a report highlighting some of the health, privacy and cost concerns of this technology and called for EU-wide standards when deploying the scanners.

Currently, each member state sets its own rules when rolling out the devices in its airports. In Britain, for example, two Muslim women were not allowed to board a plane in March after refusing to pass through a scanner.

Ms Callahan stressed that in the US a pat-down is always an option for those passengers who do not want to be scanned. Also, the officer looking at the images is in a separate room and does not actually see the person going through the scanner.

In Britain, this is not the case. The security official looking at the image is stands next to the passenger being scanned. This gives room for abuse. One scanner operator at Heathrow was issued a police warning for making a lewd comment to a colleague after she accidentally passed through the machine. And a popular Indian actor claimed his image was reprinted and circulated by female security officials who asked him for an autograph.

"We stress clearly that there has to be no retention of data. The image just shows if the person has any metal or plastic objects underneath the clothes. But there is no need to store it," Ms Callahan said.

The EU commission also believes that images should not be stored - even if the technology allows it - because the image would not be admissible as evidence in court, only the actual weapon or chemicals found.

"Images should only be used for aviation security purposes. In principle, storage and retrieval of images created by the security scanner should not be possible once a person has been cleared for not carrying any threat items," the commission's report reads.

Another privacy protection measure – put in place in the Netherlands but not the US – is to have a stick figure or a mannequin instead of the real image of the person, with a light flashing in the specific body area which needs closer inspection.

The commission lists all these options, including the US system where the scanning officer is in a different room, but warns that this may result in higher costs, as more personnel would need to be hired.

The cost of a new full body scanner ranges from between €100,000 and €200,000, without any "additional software upgrades" or an "automatic use" of the scanning devices.

The latter would allow British security officers to look at the image only when an alert system flags up an anomaly. This would allow most people to pass through without being compared against their naked image.

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