The full-body scanner that sees through clothes may seem a gross invasion of privacy. A traveller shows up at the airport and, instead of being put through a metal detector, is subjected to an imaging machine that produces an outline of a person's genitals, not to mention such things as a colostomy bag, an artificial leg, fat deposits or surgically enhanced or removed breasts.
Humiliation should not be the price of getting on an airplane. But it may be that with technological advances and privacy safeguards, the imaging technology is not humiliating at all. More on that in a moment.
One lesson of the near-catastrophe of terrorism over Detroit on Christmas Day is that intelligence failures are inevitable, and that other lines of defence are necessary. The very failures that made 9/11 possible, such as breakdowns in communication between intelligence officials in various government departments, seem to have happened again. Any system that relies on human beings (or machines, for that matter) is fallible.
Canada's Privacy Commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, has approved the use of the airport scanners; not in the anxiety of the moment, but in October. The plan allows for the use of the machines (which have been tested in Kelowna) only for secondary, or follow-up, screening. The persons subject to this screening would have a choice of receiving a physical pat-down instead.
This seems odd. Why invest in an expensive system (the machines cost around $200,000 each) and allow people to opt out of it? That's not a safeguard; it's a notwithstanding clause.
Sensibly, the plan approved by the Privacy Commissioner would require an officer to view the image in a separate room, and not see the traveller. The holographic image of the face would be unrecognizable. "You would not know who it is, even if you knew the person was in line," said a spokeswoman for the commissioner's office. The image would not be retained. Some civil libertarians say images of children would amount to child pornography. This seems silly; in any event, there is new software available that blurs the images of genitals.
Deep reservations have been expressed in the United States about the technology, but the machines are now in 19 airports (the optional pat-down applies), and will probably soon be in many more. Terrorists have made the metal scanners close to obsolete. Many travellers will conclude that the full-body scanners are an unfortunate but necessary step preferable to interminable delays and an ever-present danger of mass murder.