As terrorism continues to take centre-stage in our lives so too has been the drive to counter this at any cost. The latest of such counter-terrorism measures may soon show up in our airports in the shape of the so-called full-body scanners.
The full-body scanners are large machines that will work hand-in-hand with other detection equipment already in use at security checkpoints in airports such as metal detectors and baggage x-ray machines. They are designed to scan a person’s entire body for concealed weapons, bomb-making material, and narcotics that may be concealed in a traveller’s clothes.
While their use will, of course, be crucial in enhancing that first line of defence against any potential attacks to a country, several serious ethical and health questions arise. Since they will be human-operated, will the operators manning be able to see the complete nakedness of persons as they go through the scanner?
Certain models are said to work on x-ray technology (which is linked to incidences of cancer). Will they pose a health risk to those being scanned – especially if they are frequent travellers (imagine the number of times they will need to be scanned)? Let us start on the bright side;
As of now, there are 2 major technologies used in full-body scanners; Backscatter x-ray and Millimeter-wave. Both of these use non-harmful radiation that only penetrates clothing. In a baggage x-ray system that uses stronger radiation (that is why they have the hazard sign-on), the device works the same way as a medical x-ray. Rays go through your baggage to a sensor connected to a screen.
In the case of a Backscatter body scanner, one is subjected to a gentler beam of x-rays. The rays then bounce back (‘backscattered’) from your body or from concealed objects that may have escaped the metal detector such as ceramic knives.
Millimetre-wave technology borrowed from military usage in radar systems sounds like the better of the two. Rays are transmitted to your body and bounced back to the system to generate radar images of your body that can be created in a computer and help detect concealed objects.
As such, both systems are absolutely ideal for defeating the efforts of some knife-wielding would-be hijackers or bomb-laden terrorists.
The bad side of this initiative will be the loss of privacy. This scanner will not only be able to reveal hidden stuff on you but it will equally be capable of revealing your body in detail. This is compounded by the fact that the equipment will be manned by a human being just like they do with baggage machines.
The scenario will be similar to taking your clothes for Kenya Airports Authority (KAA) staff. Can you see a lawsuit in the future where due to lack of adequate staff, a lady officer is forced to scan a male traveller and vice versa?
Some of the models in the market have a facility that blurs the imagery in places deemed sensitive so the operator does not see you more than they should.
But if we are to learn anything from the 23-year-old Nigerian bomber on-board a flight from Yemen to Detroit in 2009 who concealed 80 KG of explosives in his pants, then this blurring stuff may only be temporary until the apprehensive traveller community cools off and then the scanners will be put back to full scan mode!
Other moral and ethical issues of concern may be such as people who have embarrassing body problems like scars from burns that they do not want to expose. But the most dangerous would be their use in blackmail. Imagine an operator stumbles upon a hidden celebrity or VIP secret revealed by the scanner and decides to sell such imagery to tabloids! Can you think of some more scary ideas and share them with us?
The reality is that full-body scanners are already in use in the Netherlands while they are undergoing trials in the USA. Whether they will stay on as a security solution is an entirely different matter altogether. Kenya is known to embrace emerging technologies pretty quickly but this one, I highly doubt it will be rushing in on. Kenyans are very private and sensitive people. They will reject it instantly – or will they? Let us hear your comments.