Intrusive airport technology

October 25, 2008 at 10:37 pm Leave a comment

A while ago, I told you about the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) making life more difficult for weary travellers by installing 3D body scanners in 10 airports across America. Travellers are whacked into glass booths and subjected to a 3D body scan, which reveals intimate body parts. This of course would reveal people who have concealed objects but also people who have colostomy bags or women who have breast implants. Stuff they may wish to keep private and not have revealed. Maybe people don’t care about this but then again, maybe they do – because there’s now a backlash against this intrusive technology.

I read recently that Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney airports were trialling this technology. A friend of mine was worried about going to Melbourne – that she’d be hauled aside and shoved into a glass booth. But so far, the trial is voluntary. Breezing through Melbourne airport, my friend was in fact asked to participate and she flatly refused (yeah, I have some sensible friends). She thought it was all pretty “sinister” (in her words).

But apparently reports that the European Union may ban such intrusive technology is not deterring the Office of Transport Security from subjecting people to body scanning. A spokesperson said: “The faces are automatically blurred and … it’s only a chalk-style outline, it’s not as invasive as some of the other equipment that we’ve got”. And what would that technology be, I might ask?

So you enter some booth, you get scanned, the image isn’t saved because the person screening hits a button to zap the image. Sounds innocent of course but it’s just another intrusion we’re expected to put up with in the name of the “war on terrorists”. And in a clever twist, the body scanners are said to be reasonably quick, so passengers won’t have to queue up in long lines – the average sheep amongst us would consider this a bonus and therefore not object to the scanning.

European Union lawmakers are describing this body scanning business as “virtual strip searches” (smart dudes if you ask me) and are calling for a detailed study of the technology before it is implemented throughout the EU. The lawmakers have adopted a non-binding resolution calling for the European Commission to carry out an economic, medical and human rights assessment of the impact of body scanning technology. An EU parliamentarian says: “I think this is an offence against human dignity. Using this technology does not make us safer. These are machines that allow for you to be seen totally naked”.

I would ask whether here in Australia there was a public consultation process or whether a Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) on the impact of the trial was carried out.  So I checked out the Australian Privacy Foundation to see what they had to say and yep, looks like a PIA has never been done and the AFP are loudly calling for one in a Policy Statement.  The AFP makes the following (extremely sensible) observations that I hope will raise serious questions about body scanning technology:

  1. Any scheme that has significant potential to intrude into privacy, in any of its forms, needs to be the subject of a Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA). A preliminary PIA is necessary even before trials of such a nature are undertaken.
  2. The Office claims that privacy is protected because “the officer examining the images is located away from the screening lane and cannot see [the person concerned]”. This suggests a serious lack of appreciation of the nature of privacy. Many people regard the appearance of their naked bodies as being private, and are concerned about a breach of this expectation whether or not the person looking at the image knows who they are.
  3. Any privacy-intrusive measure requires justification, and exposure of the justification to review. It is far from clear what the problem is that this technology is meant to address, and far from clear that it is any more effective or efficient in addressing that problem than are other, less privacy-intrusive alternatives.
  4. The trials should be halted, and a PIA conducted.
  5. This technology exposes the serious limitations on current privacy laws. They are limited to protection of ‘personal information’ and do not apply to the intrusion involved in depersonalised body-scanning.

UPDATE: I might just move to Germany. Apparently, the Interior Ministry has announced that no matter what the decision of the EU, Germany will NOT adopt the body scanning technology. Interior Minister Gabriele Hermani told the Associated Press, “We won’t join in with this nonsense.” Smart dude. Love your work.

UPDATE: The European Commission has shelved controversial plans to introduce full body scanners. Yeah!!!

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Entry filed under: Airport security, Australia, Biometric identification, Privacy, Surveillance society.

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