EU: Researchers Criticise Airport Body Scanners

Image of Scanned Body

The European Commission is proposing a legal framework for the use of full body scanners in order to prevent attempts to smuggle non-metallic explosives on board aircraft. The downside of the proposals is that selected airport staff will see invasive images of passengers, who will be effectively stripped bare. It is possible that legislation may not even force airports staff to inform passengers that the images are being taken.

Vice-President Siim Kallas, responsible for transport, defends the use of scanners saying:

“Security scanners are being used by an increasing number of Member States across the EU, but at the moment their use falls outside the scope of EU law, so they are used in Member states in different ways. Security scanners are not a panacea, but they do offer a real possibility to further reinforce passenger security.”

Following the publication of a European Commission communication on the use of body scanners at European airports, researchers from the DETECTER (Detection Technologies,Terrorism Ethics, and Human Rights) Collaborative Research Project expressed disappointment with the failure of European leadership to respect the need for travellers’ privacy.

Martin Scheinin, Professor of Public International Law at the European University Institute said:

“The central issue of interference in the right to privacy is ignored. Therefore, the document does not include even an effort to subject the use of security scanners to a proper test of permissible limitations, including the assessment of the necessity, effectiveness and proportionality of the interference.

…the Commission’s conclusion that the “fundamental rights issues can be dealt with by a combination of technical equipment specifications and operational rules” is clearly inadequate. Instead, any future discussion on common European standards for airport security should be limited to technologies that neither produce images nor emit radiation.”

Furthermore, Professor Tim Sorell, who works on the DETECTER project from Birmingham University, pointed out that there is no specific requirement for authorities to inform passengers of whom they produce a body scan image.

Amazingly, passengers may even be refused boarding if they refuse to undergo intrusive imaging of their body. Mathias Vermeulen, DETECTER Research Fellow at the European University Institute said:

“The Commission seems to offer passengers a false choice. Passengers may only refuse to go through the scanner when “alternative detection methods of similar effectiveness” such as full body hand searches are in place. When there is no such “regular alternative” the Commission seems to suggest that a person cannot board the plane when he refuses to go through the scanner. This is a disproportionate response which would increase the level of intrusion of airport security measures.”

The fact that European Commission proposals for an EU legal framework are yet to be tabled, gives an opportunity to amend the details to allow for greater citizen protections from over-invasive imaging, though changes are unlikely without significant EU-wide pressure.

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