Sunday, January 3, 2010

Bombing bid renews debate on full-body scanners at airports

OTTAWA — The attempted bombing of a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day has renewed debate over the use of full-body scanners to enhance security screening at airports.

Privacy experts have long derided the 3-D imaging technology as intrusive, because of the detailed view of the human body provided by the scanners, but security concerns could trump those apprehensions.

"We are reviewing whether the scanners should be used in our airports," said Patrick Charette, a spokesman for Transport Canada. "But I can't tell you that it will speed up the process."

The decision on a widespread deployment of the so-called "naked" scanners lies with Transport Canada, which is in charge of creating the rules around airport security.

Charette said Transport Canada needs to balance security and privacy concerns as it mulls the decision whether to introduce the scanners.

Transport Canada, and the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority, the Crown corporation that oversees screening at the country's airports, tested one of the machines at the Kelowna, B.C., airport for seven months in 2008.

CATSA recommended the machines be deployed, and the privacy commissioner gave the go-ahead in October. But no decision has yet been made.

Liberal transport critic, Joe Volpe, told Canwest News Service that as Parliament heads into an unexpectedly long holiday, he believes the debate be buried.

"Apparently, now we aren't even going to have the committees to examine the process and put it under a microscope," he said. "The government can now tell the public anything it wants. It can feed paranoia or it can reassure the public. There's nobody there to go through this with a fine-tooth comb."

The $200,000 millimetre-wave scanners, which are 10 times more expensive than traditional metal detectors, require a passenger to stand in a clear chamber as two antennae circle them, sending out radio waves. Those waves create a 3-D image that highlights anything a person may be carrying, as well as a fairly intimate outline of the subject's entire body.

The scanners can reveal plastic or chemical explosives or non-metallic weapons that would pass undetected through regular metal detectors, and they might have prevented the failed Christmas Day attempt to blow up the Northwest Airlines flight, which landed safely in Detroit.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, the suspect in that case, is alleged to have hidden explosive material in his underwear. He didn't go through a full-body scan when he boarded his flight in Amsterdam.

As a result of the incident, Dutch Interior Minister Guusje Ter Horst said on Wednesday that in three weeks there should be 15 scanners set up at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport.

In the U.S., there are 19 American airports that have deployed 40 millimetre-wave scanners on a trial basis and the Transportation Security Administration announced Wednesday the purchase of 150 backscatter, low-level X-ray machines to be deployed over the next year, and funding for 300 more.

Millimetre-wave scanners take 3-D images using radio frequencies, while backscatter scanners take 2-D pictures with low-level radiation.

The widespread use of the technology has caused a great deal of consternation in U.S. political circles, and the most ardent opponent, U.S. Congressman Jason Chaffetz from Utah, still opposes the use of the technology on most passengers. He has fought the scanners on privacy grounds, and his bill opposing their use is stuck in the Senate.

In Britain, Interior Minister Alan Johnson said Monday he would consider installing full-body scanners at British airports "as quickly as possible," and the European parliament, which has consistently opposed the technology on privacy and health grounds, has asked for more studies in both these areas.

Joe Gavaghan, a spokesman for Garda, a security firm contracted by CATSA to handle security at some of Canada's biggest airports, including Pearson International in Toronto, said the Christmas Day incident only heightens the fact that security is paramount at airports.

"I think it adds to the pressure of making sure that any technology that would be effective is used in important places as quickly as possible," said Gavaghan. "The question is, if you move too hastily, are you putting technology in place that is either not effective, not cost-effective and won't do the job that needs to be done."

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