Airport full-body security scanners raise many legal concerns, and while this isn’t exactly a new issue, it made headlines recently by raising employment law concerns—particularly with respect to workplace harassment and violence. However, the more publicized issues that this technology raises are privacy and human rights concerns.
These full-body scanners screen airline passengers by peering underneath clothing, and they can store, record and transfer images of screened passengers, making the images open to possible abuse.
Privacy advocates and civil liberties groups claim that the scanners are breaching privacy laws. They are a “virtual strip search” because they display an image of passengers’ naked bodies on a computer screen. Some have gone so far as to say that these scanners violate child pornography laws because the process shows a person’s private parts.
The scans also violate the human rights of groups such as the disabled, the transgendered, the elderly, various religious groups, pregnant women and children, since the images from the scan might embarrass them, intrude on or violate their religious observances, or cause danger to their health and safety.
Despite these concerns, in January 2010, the Canadian government moved ahead with its plan to invest in full-body scanners to enhance security at Canadian airports. They are now in place in Toronto and British Columbia.
Airport authorities have stated that all full-body scanners are delivered to airports without the capability to store, print or transmit images. Each image is automatically deleted after it is cleared by the officer looking at the image. The scan is done by a person of the same sex. Also, faces are blurred, and the agent checking the images is located in a separate room away from the scanners.
But the BC Civil Liberties Association is not reassured. They warn that security staff could take pictures of the scans with their own cameras or cellphones, or make prints from the images.
And guess what: it has already happened. One example,
In February 2010, it was revealed on the BBC’s Jonathan Ross show that naked images of Indian film star Shahrukh Khan were printed out and circulated by airport security staff at Heathrow in London.
Not only did staff print his image, but contrary to the directives, it was a woman operator who performed the scan, not a man.
This set off alarm bells that the precautions set out by airport authorities are flawed, they can be abused, and they do indeed violate privacy law.
The BC Civil Liberties Association and other advocacy groups have called for a ban on airport body scanners, or a switch to new software that would eliminate the problem by displaying a stylized image rather than an actual picture, highlighting the area of the body where objects are concealed in pockets or under the clothing.
I am sure we have not heard the last on this topic. But in the meantime, do we have to get used to the idea that some airport security employees will misuse these images?