For decades, generations of children have fantasized about what they could do if they had Superman's x-ray vision. Now, privacy advocates are worried that airline and other screeners will soon have comparable capabilities. The call for the widespread use of full-body scanners in airports is a response to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's attempt to blow up an airliner over Detroit this past December 25. The question is whether such scanners are actually the most effective solution and whether they invade the individual's privacy.
An example of such a system is the Rapiscan WaveScan 200. At its heart is a real-time radiometric scanner, which images electromagnetic (EM) millimeter-wave energy, as well as a video camera, on-board computer, and video-detection engine. Using the detection engine, Rapiscan Systems promises that security screeners will be alerted and can pinpoint concealed objects without intrusive, personnel-intensive, and potentially dangerous physical searches. Screeners also will be able to perform "virtual" pat-downs, which certainly sounds more comfortable than the physical pat-downs that are now being done on every passenger.
Although Rapiscan Systems claims that the WaveScan 200 does not reveal anatomical details, privacy advocates are concerned about just how much screeners will be able to see with such systems. In a December 28 New York Times article titled, "More Questions on Why Terror Suspect Was Not Stopped," Eric Lipton and Scott Shane note, "Privacy advocates have tried to stop or at least slow the introduction of advanced checkpoint screening devices that use so-called millimeter waves to create an image of a passenger's body, so officers can see under clothing to determine if a weapon or explosive has been hidden. Security officers, in a private area, review the images, which are not stored. Legislation is pending in the House that would prohibit the use of this equipment for routine passenger screening."
Even if the use of such screeners is not blocked, some naysayers claim that these systems fail to detect as much as they promise. Kate Hanni, President of FlyersRights.org, emphasizes, "While these body scanners detect anomalies' that are between the skin and clothing, they will not detect anything in a body cavity that is deeper than 1/10th of an inch."
A better solution may be found not in millimeter waves, but in Fido. According to Dr. Kenneth G. Furton, Professor of Chemistry, International Forensic Research Institute, Florida International University, "I have conducted research with canines for nearly two decades and these biological explosive detectors continue to be the most reliable method for locating concealed explosives. The orthogonal instrumental detectors under development should be considered as potential complements rather than replacements for canines' proven ability to detect vapors emanating from concealed explosives." If it lives up to its promises, this combined approach may guard our privacy while increasing our safety.