The popularity or rather the unpopularity of the whole body imaging technologies incorporated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security at all the major airports, has raised interesting questions about the technology and the use of airport scanners.
Deployed as a means of increasing the security in the airports, the airport body scanners have the ability to produce high quality images to locate metallic or non-metallic threats.
As a matter of fact, they have now become a popular alternative to traditional airport security measures, like body searches, popularly referred to as pat downs. Incorporated by the US Transportation Security Agency (TSA), these 'naked scanners' are utilized as a technology, to complement or replace other security devices like metal and bomb detectors.
Before we can take a look at the ethical and moral dimensions, let us understand the technology and the concept.
Technology and Concept
The whole body imaging technologies use various imaging techniques to scan and create a two dimensional full body image of an individual. The current technologies use the Backscatter or the Millimeter-wave(MMV) technologies, to construct the images.
While the millimeter-wave technology beams a non-ionizing radio frequency to construct a 3D image, the backscatter technology uses a low-intensity X-ray beam for constructing a 2D graphic image of the passengers. Both the technologies have the advantage of producing high quality image, while addressing some of the privacy concerns.
While certain things like the objects carried by the person can be highlighted, the airport scanners can choose to obfuscate images by blurring the facial features or the private parts, by activating the privacy filters.
Once the digital image has been recorded and checked, they are deleted forever. The major goals of this technology is the detection of metallic and non-metallic threats, and a means of replacing the physical pat-downs or strip searches.
The Controversy Surrounding Airport Body Imaging
"A choice between being groped and being stripped, I don't think we should pretend those are the only choices. People shouldn't be humiliated by their government in the name of security, nor should they trust that the images will always be kept private."
- Chris Calabrese, ACLU lawyer
- Chris Calabrese, ACLU lawyer
Debated extensively by the media and the privacy advocates, these airport scanners have raised the issues of privacy violation and humiliation for the passengers.
At first glance, these body imaging machines do appear less invasive then the physical pat downs, but these machines allow security personnel to view near-naked bodies. Moreover, there are no safeguards in place to ensure that the privacy filters are activated or that the images are in fact, deleted permanently.
There are several steps that the government and the TSA should undertake to address the concerns. Ensuring that the privacy filters obscuring bodily details are activated and that the images recorded by the airport scanners are not captured or stored, will go a long way in resting the concerns.
Although the airport body imaging devices have proved to be effective over time, there should be laws prohibiting the retention and transfer of these images. There should be clear and transparent rules, affecting the system design and operation, supported by credible assurance methods. This would ensure that security and the privacy go hand in hand.