Airport body scanners: Real antiterrorism device or security theater?

The Electronic Privacy Information Center and a coalition of groups that include the American Civil Liberties Union are petitioning (.pdf) the Homeland Security Administration to suspend full body scans at airports.

The petition goes into a number of points–the fact that the images can be stored, the fact that the images could be associated with a traveler’s identity and the fact that DHS is apparently rushing into deploying full body scans across the nation.

To my mind, however, the most important point is this: Do the scanners actually make us safer? In the balance, a view of my naked body doesn’t add up to much if terrorists can be prevented from blowing up airplanes.

But, as the petition notes, the efficacy of those scanners are doubtful. They are not designed to detect the explosive used by the Christmas bomber, for example. According to design specifications, they are meant to detect liquid, but not powdered, material.

Neither is EPIC alone in questioning the efficacy of body scanners–the Government Accountability Office has reported (.pdf) that the scanners have been deployed without operational testing. The Transportation Security Administration hasn’t even assessed whether terrorists can evade explosive detection from a body scanner.

“Thus, without an assessment of the vulnerabilities of checkpoint technologies, it is unclear whether the [advanced imaging technology] or other technologies would have been able to detect the weapon [attempted bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab] used in his attempted attack,” the GAO report states.

Given the amount of doubt around scanners–which truly are an incursion into privacy–it seems that DHS should at the very least stop the body scanner rollout until it can assure the public that scanners are a sacrifice worth making.

Until then, it appears that DHS is simply adding a new layer to airport security theater. – Dave

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