Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Full Body Scanners at Airports

I hope this raises some discussion because I feel this is the single most important thing I've written about on this blog.

First off, the basic facts: This year Canada, following the lead of the US installed full body scanners in several of its airports. These scanners use radiation to scan through passengers’ clothes, resulting in a nude image of the passenger. In Canada not everyone has to go through the extra screening process and you can opt for a pat-down instead.

This blog post is not about the radiation aspect. That aspect of the scanners seems to be the most heavily discussed elsewhere and I don’t pretend to have enough scientific knowledge to do more than quote other people, and both sides can probably find some statistics to back up their arguments. Instead this blog focuses primarily at privacy issues.

Privacy is admittedly hard to quantify, and different people require different levels of privacy. Some people are exhibitionists; on at least one blog someone posted they are looking forward to undergoing the scan for this very reason. Other people say they are not exhibitionists but in the name of security are willing to grin and bare it. Others still simply don’t want to be seen nude at all, however briefly, and even if the image quality isn’t perfect.

I belong to the latter group. There are all kinds of valid reasons why someone might not want to be seen nude, that have nothing to do with terrorism. Maybe they are self-conscious about their body by nature. Maybe they had a bad experience that makes them want to be covered or causes them to flash back to the trauma under such circumstances, or both; there could even be some unsightly physical damage they prefer not to show. Maybe it’s against their religious and/or spiritual beliefs. Maybe the thought of the images potentially being used for sexual gratification is unappealing. Maybe they simply feel that what they look like nude is not anyone’s business. I won’t do into full detail as to why I personally don’t want my body to be seen, because that much definitely is not anyone else's business unless I choose to tell them. We live in a fairly free country so the fact that I have chosen to keep my body hidden is my prerogative.

I think it boils down to respect and dignity. How much extra dignity are you willing to give up in the name of a bit more physical security? How much respect are you giving someone if you make them have to choose between having to be seen nude or be given a pat down which by some accounts can get a bit, uh, frisky? I’m not knocking physical safety, but I think it’s also important to respect that body scanners, for some, absolutely do constitute a gross violation of their privacy.

We are told that the images don’t show much and that the images are not stored. Even if that’s true (and again “don’t show much” is open to interpretation), who’s to say that both will remain the case? Certainly even from the classic “rooftop” view of Google Earth the picture quality has gotten better over the years. And some allegations of the images being stored are starting to appear.

Where does the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom stand on this? Sections 7 and 8 are the key:

7. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.

8. Everyone has the right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure.

Now obviously there’s room for interpretation. My own interpretation of number 7 is that we’re innocent until proven guilty. Number 8 is even more subjective, as it depends on what you consider to be unreasonable. I don’t necessarily feel that having bags scanned before entering a vehicle that is going to be in the sky to be unreasonable, but I do think that having my genitalia displayed to a complete stranger passes the litmus test of “unreasonable”.

It’s also important to remember that I’ve mainly been focussing on Canada. The US and other countries have their own rules regarding such devices so it’s important that you know the rules of the country you’re flying into as well. The US of course has its own rules about privacy but seems at least as willing to break them, if not more so.

Thus far I’ve barely touched upon the primary argument of the opposing side, that it increases security. But does it really? One pattern that emerges when you look at some methods of attack in recent years (using planes as de facto bombs, liquids, underwear) is that terrorists are quite flexible and innovative in their means of attack and often don’t use the same method twice. So people’s dignity is being eroded to counter a means of attack that the terrorists may well have never intended to use a second time anyway. There’s an interesting paradox about increased security: it makes people feel safer, yes, but at the same time but at the same time it heightens people’s fear for their safety, leaving people thinking they’ll die if these things aren’t implemented. I honestly believe the next big attempt at terrorism will be something that no one will see coming ahead of time, and that sacrificing dignity and privacy for extra security only creates an illusion of safety, and a pretty fragile one at that. It’s not even a good deterrent, as the people who would truly be deterred by airport security would have been deterred by the pre-9/11 system as well. For people on the fence on committing a crime, the presence of officers is usually enough.

But what if you really don’t care about the scanners, if you’re fine if people see your genitalia? Should you be opposed to the full body scanners anyway? Yes! Because you respect others’ need for privacy, even if you don’t share those needs. Because you don’t want your loved one’s bodies on display (while people under 18 can’t be scanned in Canada, again this is a Canada-specific rule). Because you think it’s too much time and money for a fragile illusion. Or maybe it’s because you are a very wise person; you’ve seen people’s rights in North America getting slowly chipped away by airports since 9/11, and realize that if you condone this you are allowing for things to continue to the point where sooner or later a process that does violate you will come into play. And be assured that if you scoff at other’s feelings of violation and then find yourself violated later on, I will still support and respect your own personal needs even as I remind you that you scoffed.

I will never submit to a full body scan, and will only submit to a pat-down under specific conditions (if I consider the reason for the pat-down valid, and if it’s agreed that certain areas are off limits). If this means spending more time on busses, so be it. I am willing to spend the extra time in order to maintain my right to privacy. Remember, the primary goal of terrorists isn’t to kill a lot of people. That’s often a by-product of their true goal, to spread terror, hence the name terrorist. If you sacrifice your dignity and privacy in the name of security, mission accomplished.


mgrinder said...

I personally don't think I mind. Apparently they block out your face, and have a guy look who can't see you, or something like that.

Darcy said...

I agree with your ideas about security measures creating more fear without actually improving security. It seems to be an excuse to implement extra fees and taxes, and really does nothing other than promote more police-state mentality. Good post.

Andy E. Nystrom said...

mgrinder (obviously I know your first name but don't want to indicate it here without your permission): I respect that. I still wouldn't be comfortable for the same reason that someone might not want to pose nude with a bag on their head; many people who don't want to be seen nude don't want to be seen, period. Ditto some people not wanting their children to be seen, even sans face (to my knowledge the under 18 exemption is just Canada, not the US). In addition sketchy people can be found in all walks of life and could find ways around that. Furthermore I've experienced firsthand that some, not all, but some people in authority are not afraid to take liberties with the truth. I'm not prepared to gamble my privacy on the likelihood of them telling the truth, or that all countries will show the same level of dilligence. And again, slippery slope, and not one that necessarily solves anything at all.

Andy E. Nystrom said...

Thank you, Darcy. I agree that extra fees and taxes are a large part of it, though it wouldn't surprise me if the police state part is the real goal. If you submit in this sort of situation, you can find yourself more of a mind to give up freedoms to authority in other areas currently protected by the Charter (or equivalent for non-Canucks). I'm not saying all authority is bad, but it's only as wise and benevolent as the people currently running the show.

Anonymous said...

I used to work on one of these things, and I can tell you most certainly that images are saved. To make matters worse, they are using Windows, likely the most insecure OS on the planet.

Of course images are stored, how else do you suppose they do analysis on the images? Images are dumped on to a hard drive, and something has to actively erase them.

Trust me, they are stored. Perhaps temporarily, but what does temporarily mean? Now what do you suppose temporarily means to a government?