Victoria Cohen writing in her column in The Observer, UK, on Sunday mentioned that she had read of body-scanners being used at Bath railway station. She used this as the starting point for a standard kind of warning on increasing surveillance.
Now, normally, I would thoroughly approve, and such diffusion of technologies of surveillance would fit with the trajectories we outlined in the Report on the Surveillance Society a few years back. However, it didn’t take a lot of digging (and I am probably not the only person who has discovered this) to find that she was basing her column on a misinterpretation of what had gone on in Bath. According to an Avon and Somerset Constabulary press release, what was happening was a temporary exercise conducted jointly with the British Transport Police, using not a body-scanner but a metal detector (or ‘knife arch’ as they are sometimes termed) and sniffer dogs. This was apparently part of a policy to raise awareness of nightlife safety.
There are of course still many issues with the routine use of both sniffer dogs and metal detectors, but we need to be very careful to get the facts right when we are making comments about the spread of surveillance. Get things wrong, and the whole issue can get tarnished as alarmist.
Body-scanners are not being used in UK railway stations. Not yet, anyway…
A new report from the International Air Transportation Association (IATA) say that the industry is wasting billions on unnecessary and ineffective security procedures which are slowing down travel and damaging the whole sector’s economic prospects, according to The Guardian. This comes only days after the German government decided not to introduce body-scanners after trials showed them to be unreliable.
The argument is not particularly surprising, but there seem to be interesting aspects of the issue (apart from the basic human rights problems which we should never forget). The first is that clearly someone is benefitting economically, even if it is not the air transport sector, and that someone is the security industry – although as it happens, a whole range of people and companies have benefitted from the aftermath of 9/11. The Guardian article mentions that UK-based scanning company, Smiths, has tripled its profits this year to near $1Bn, despite the problems with scanners. However, it isn’t all bad. In European domestic and regional markets, airlines have lost out to railway travel, and this can only be a good thing in terms of environmental concerns.
The second aspect is that IATA is using this to push the revival of integrated ‘trusted traveller’ plans coming out of the USA. Many countries have bilateral schemes, but the idea is for travellers with ‘nothing to hide’ to submit personal information to a central body that would validate them without the need for time-consuming checks on the airport. So far, such schemes have been largely restricted to business-class passengers, raising the strong possibility of confusion between really improved security and simply buying more convenience. However, there is another problem from the point of view of security here too: one of the major concerns for security is so-called ‘clean skins’, terrorist who have never triggered any suspicion because they are either entirely new converts to the cause, or have been deep undercover for years cultivating an unblemished record.
In any case, it appears that the security companies are trying to get past the criticism by producing new seamless and less intrusive scanning technologies that would not require long waits and would be integrated into the architecture of airport corridors etc. Of course, the delays and inconvenience of obvious security and surveillance procedures have a purpose and are not just by-products. There is, theoretically at least, a consciousness-raising effect of what Bruce Schneier calls ‘security theater’. If these new gadgets work, and the German trial suggests that there is often more smoke than heat in claims about effectiveness, this effect would be diminished in favour of speed and convenience for an as yet unknown proportion of travellers and much greater inconvenience for the remainder. It’s an interesting conundrum for the authorities…
Two of the major pilots’ unions in the USA are advising their members not to submit to body scans. There have also been a number of cases of people refusing to cooperate with the new (and so far unofficial) more intense TSA ‘pat-downs’ (including ‘testicular cupping’ for men…) for those who decide not to be scanned. Geek website, Boing Boing, has been documenting the growing movement against body scanning, including T-shirts, no-fly days and the like, however it seems rather optimistic to suggest, as they do, that the action of the unions will hasten the inevitable end of the scanners following some talk that they do not detect internal objects in the body and earlier demonstrations that they may not even be that good at finding some external objects. In fact, it seems more likely that not only will they eventually become mandatory sooner rather than later, but that the technical limitations of the current scanners will prompt their replacement by more advanced models that are now already being tested, which do detect internal foreign objects.
Well, I will soon have up close and personal experience of just what is going on when I fly to San Francisco tomorrow… wish me luck!
According to maverick security expert, Bruce Schneier, it appears that airport body scanners may not even work on their own terms. Here is an interesting demonstration on a German TV show which has a particular scanner detecting a cellphone, but missing the not-very-well-hidden bomb components…
The whole body scanners issue has once again brought to the fore the question of the relationship of security and the economy (see here, here and here). This is a more complex question than the political economy which argues that security companies benefit, therefore there are economic interests behind every surveillance surge than occurs. Of course, some companies, scanner makers, Rapiscan and L3 in particular in this case, make a lot of money form their patented systems: each one of the 44 L3 Scanners that Canadian airports are installing costs around $250,000 CAN (125,000 Euro), which adds up to a hefty income to L3. And of course there are connections to the revolving door of US Homeland Security governance at least: Michael Chertoff, the former Head of HOmeland Security from 2005-9 was making the case for scanners immediately after the December 25th thighbomber’s failed attempt, yet he neglected to mention his role as consultant to Rapiscan, which was awarded millions of dollars of contracts under his watch.
However, there are other interests here, notably the aviation industry, airlines and airports, not to mention those of travelers. The Toronto Globe and Mail today reports how airlines in Canada are increasingly concerned that already growing security levies from government (to provide security) will only spiral with every new measure introduced. The airlines expect the government to bear the costs. The government has merely said that it will try to ensure that costs passed on are minimised. However someone has to pay, somewhere along the line. If airlines (or their passengers) are not paying, then tax-payers are and it’s debatable whether ultimately, subsidising the security costs of international travelers is really what taxes should be for when times are hard. Of course no government wants this to come down to a ‘security versus the economy’ argument, but that has to be discussed, alongside the still largely unaddressed issues of privacy and other individual and collective liberties.