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Will body scanners improve our airport security?

Woman walking through airport scanner

Airports using full body scanners are causing controversy in the US. But, as they start to be introduced over here, do you think they’re a necessary security measure or an infringement of civil liberties?

Airport security is a tricky issue. On the one hand we want to feel safe and confident in security measures.

On the other, we don’t want to wait in lengthy queues emptying our pockets, taking off coats and shoes. And we don’t want to be faced with aggressive security staff or feel like our civil liberties are being infringed.

How airport security stacks up

In October, the chairman of British Airways called for some airport security checks to be scrapped, saying it was unnecessary for all passengers to remove shoes or scan laptops separately. But just two days later there was a failed cargo bomb attack on two planes – one in the UK and one in Dubai.

When high profile incidents occur, reactionary security measures appear to follow. Having to remove our shoes, for instance, followed the shoe bomber plot in 2001 and restrictions on carrying liquids in hand luggage followed the liquid bomb plot in 2006. Managing these threats is a fine line for airports to tread and something which they’ve so far negotiated with varying degrees of success.

Take the full body scanners. These devices have been a source of much controversy, not least because they produce a clear outline of a person’s body. In addition, the Department of Transport has said that if you refuse to be scanned you’ll be prevented from flying.

The controversy of airport scanners

The public argument against the scanners is much more widespread in the US than in the UK, with many people condemning them as infringing individual privacy rights.

Canada’s privacy watchdog is currently assessing whether the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority is doing enough to protect passenger privacy at the country’s airports following the use of full body scanners.

But aside from privacy concerns, US and UK pilots are equally concerned about the accumulative effect of radiation on frequent flyers. The US Allied Pilot Association has called for airline staff to be given the choice of either passing through the scanners or a traditional ‘pat down’ search.

And they may have cause for concern. Research by Columbia University’s Centre for Radiological Research found that radiation doses from the scanners may be up to 20 times higher than first estimated.

And, earlier this year the Inter-Agency Committee on Radiation Safety published a report saying air passengers should be made aware of the risks associated with body scanners. It also stated that pregnant women and small children shouldn’t be subjected to scanning even though the radiation dose is ‘extremely small’.

So why use body scanners?

Currently, full body scanners are used at Birmingham, Heathrow and Manchester airports but they’re likely to be introduced at more airports in the future. Although controversial, Which? members don’t appear to be overly concerned by having to use them. Almost three quarters said they would be happy for full-body scanners to be introduced.

So could body scanners be a boon for stress-free and efficient route through security? Some think so. At Manchester Airport, use of the scanners has reduced security screening times from two minutes to around 25 seconds per person. They’ve eliminated the need to remove coats, belts and shoes and, together with the introduction of automatic security processing gates (or SMART gates), have helped to save time.

Strict security measures have a clear part to play in ensuring our safety when flying, but should these measures be at the cost our civil liberties?

Lruffles says:
21 December 2010

If body scanners improve the time it takes to get through airport security then I’m all for them. But I really think we need to try and get some sort of consistency with this sort of thing – it’s really annoying that in some places you have to take laptops out of bags, and at others you don’t – perhaps this should only be introduced if it can be done at all UK airports.

In fact the airports give a good reason for the inconsistency. They want to keep would-be criminals on their toes, so one airport might even change its security policy several times within a day or vary it between queues. The important thing is that passengers are told about what they might need to remove in plenty of time before they reach the security conveyor belt.

James says:
4 January 2011

This won’t improve the time though thats the thing.

Simon Taylor says:
12 July 2011

Im disgusted that you have to choose between your dignity or your flight. And as for scanning the naked bodies of children.. there is no privacy anymore. Welcome to 1984.

Patricia Khatib says:
25 February 2011

It’s appalling that the safety issue has just been sidelined. If you are a frequent traveller, subjection to this level of radiation over a period of time could be harmful. Scientists have raised serious levels of concern but these have been ignored in the interests of streamlining passenger screening & avoiding frayed tempers. It is just not acceptable to have introduced this without proper safety checks. For further info see: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-1290527/Airport-body-scanners-deliver-radiation-dose-20-times-higher-thought.ht and http://www.naturalnews.com/030607_naked_body_scanners_radiation.html

A US report out today says that the levels of radiation from these scanners is negligible and poses no real threat to health: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-12880555
Are you convinced by this research?

It is tricky one. Yes, it is worrying that harm will come to frequent flyers, but then again, I want to know I am safe when I am in the air. Which? Travel will certainly look into it, see if we can find out any more.

Paul Tarry says:
25 July 2017

My wife has Type 1 diabetes and wears an insulin pump. The pump manufacturer says it is unsafe for the pump to be worn when she is going through the full body scanner. The specialist diabetic nurse is of the same opinion. She is faced with a dilemma when travelling through airport security: if she doesn’t admit to wearing a pump she may not be asked to go through the full body scanner and she will be cleared quickly, or should she wait until she is asked to go through the scanner in which case refusal brings problems for her. At Heathrow she was taken to a room and was given a body search and was faced with a lot of paperwork to sign. At Manchester she was told that the new body scanners are safe and do not interfere with insulin pumps. It was very difficult for her to persuade the security people otherwise, in spite of letter(s) from her medical advisers. She has been wearing an insulin pump for 10 years and would have thought that security staff would be aware of their use by now.