Body Scanners: an effective tool to address perceived rather than real increased security?

Several countries around the world have already installed body scanners in airports, including the Schiphol International Airport in Amsterdam.

Several politicians coming from both sides of the Atlantic visited the airport, in order to assess the extent to which such a measure is proportionate and effectively increases security in the airports.

The technology employed in Schiphol has been welcomed by several legislators. For example, the three United States Senators Collins, Kyl and Chambliss praised the advantages of the Schiphol technology in addressing health and privacy concerns (see previous post) in a letter to Secretary Napolitano of the Department of Homeland Security, urging to reconsider such technology also for U.S. airports.

Health concerns

The body scanners technology employed in Amsterdam Airport is based on millimeter waves using extremely high frequency radio waves to produce images with no-ionizing radiation. This frequency range is just below the (related) sub-millimeter “Terahertz radiation” (or “T-ray”) range.

While the digital journal reports that  Health Canada says the scanners are safe, the UK Health and Safety Executive states that relatively little appears to be known about the possible health & safety implications of exposure to Terahertz radiation, as a EU project in this area  confirms.

Thus, the question related to the effect that body scanners have on human bodies remains opened and needs to be investigated further.


Concerning the privacy aspect, the body scanners can “see” through passengers’ clothes, revealing sensitive information (implants, piercings…).

Nonetheless, the letter of the three senators explains that such a loopholes can be reduced by computer-based auto-detection:

“Computer-based auto-detection technology identifies potentially threatening objects on a person and highlights with boxes on a featureless human body outline those areas of the individual that may require further inspection.  If the computer scan finds no problems, then the passenger and screener at the imaging machine are notified almost immediately that the passenger may proceed (…). The automated review of images by a computer, rather than by a screener examining the image in a separate room, address privacy concerns.”

Although this option does represent an improvement compared to the systems currently used in several airports, it does not solve the privacy issues.

Especially if added to the fact that no certainty exists over the fact that images are immediately deleted, despite the fact that manufacturers insist that images cannot be stored or transferred. In fact, the machines have the ability to store images on hard disk storage, and that they possess the ability to send the images.

On top of this, the capacity of these machines for detecting devices/weapons concealed inside a body is still very limited, questioning the effectiveness of such a measure to prevent terrorist attacks. One can even argue that if an individual willing to attack an airport reach the airport, it is already too late.

Hence, once again the balance between effectiveness and invasion of fundamental rights, remains to be verified and therefore the use of body scanners in airports seems more a measure to address perceived rather than real greater security.


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