After the Thighbomber: Virtual Strip Searches at every airport?

The botched attempt to bomb a flight into the US by a the son of a wealthy Nigerian family, using explosive components strapped to his thigh, has led to an immediate techno-economic consequence, which is to speed up the process of installing terahertz wave or other body scanners in major airports, which if nothing else will provide a guaranteed income stream to Rapiscan and Qinetiq, who make these kinds of machines. Schipol in Amsterdam, where  announced they would be extending their body scanning operation and the British government almost immediately followed by saying that major British airports would be rolling out body scanning within weeks. Now, Canada is to do the same.

But, will this make a real difference or is it just more symbolic security? The scanners certainly ‘work’ in the sense that they do provide pretty good images of what is under the clothes of passengers (see below). However, interpreting what is seen is still no easy task and will the scanners will certainly not replace physical searches, but will add yet another extra layer of surveillant sorting and therefore delay. And there are questions over the effectiveness of the scanners in particular areas of the body. The Toronto Sun reports that trials at Kelowna Airport in British Columbia “left blind spots over the head and feet”, so these machines are certainly not the ‘silver bullet’.

Then of course, there are the privacy issues. I don’t have any particular problem with the technology, provided it is restricted to airports and doesn’t start to get used in other, more everyday, social settings (which given the rapid development of this technology is by no means certain). However, as I noted the last time I wrote about this, there will be many religious, gender-based and personal reasons for objecting to their use. The other question of course is whether, every time some lone lunatic tries something like this – that was, let us not forget, poorly planned and ineffective, and which should have been prevented by other conventional intelligence operations working properly – it makes sense to jump and harden security (or at least be seen to harden security) for everyone travelling internationally. Doing this just plays into the hands of terrorists as it disrupts the ordinary workings of an open society.

Body Scan Image (US TSA)

Author: David

I'm David Murakami Wood. I live on Wolfe Island, in Ontario, and am Canada Research Chair (Tier II) in Surveillance Studies and an Associate Professor at Queen's University, Kingston.

5 thoughts on “After the Thighbomber: Virtual Strip Searches at every airport?”

  1. Thanks for this. As far as I know, most of the applications of this technology in airports so far still use consent principles – i.e. you can chose to be scanned or have a traditional search. At the moment, I don’t know that the UK or Canada are going to require scanning of all passengers and certainly not scanning of children.

  2. My first thought beyond the disturbing ‘creep’ factor was the potential health risks. This seems like cancer waiting to happen, especially among those who travel frequently… Thoughts?

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