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Debate: Full-body scanners at airports

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Should counter-terrorism efforts include full-body scans at airports?

Background and context

Fully-body screening at airports is a topic that became particularly relevant after the December 25, 2009 "Christmas Bomber" attempted terrorist attack, in which a Nigerian man tried to detonate an explosive device that was stitched into his under-wear on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit. The plane made an emergency landing in Detroit without any fatalities.
Yet, the ramifications of the event have been major, including a widespread effort to crack down on the potential for terrorists to carry make-shift bombs on their bodies through security check points. One of the main proposals to combat this potential is full-body scanners at airports, which have already been implemented in many airports internationally. These machines essentially take an x-ray picture of a passenger, too peer under their clothing to detect any potential weapons and bombs on the body. Many believe that such a system could have easily detected the "under-wear bomber" on December 25th, 2009. In the broader fight on terrorism they are believed to have the potential to thwart future, similar terrorist attacks and save lives. Yet, opponents consider them an intrusion on the privacy of passengers because they allow screeners to view an outline of genitalia and bodily contours. This is of particular concern with individuals that have cultural and religious sensitivities to such images being taken, and with minors (many believe scanners would violate child pornography laws). Opponents also raise concerns regarding the ability of scanners to detect non-metallic materials and bombs or weapons that might be hidden in body cavities. Other concerns include the potential health effects of exposing a large number of passengers to small doses of radiation as well as the high price of each individual scanner. The pros and cons, as presented in the public debate being played out in major publications, are documented below.


Effectiveness: Are fully-body scans an effective tool to counter terrorism?


  • Scanners help reveal hidden weapons and bombs Former Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff told the Washington Post, "You’ve got to find some way of detecting things in parts of the body that aren’t easy to get at. It’s either pat downs or imaging, or otherwise hoping that bad guys haven’t figured it out, and I guess bad guys have figured it out."[1]
  • Fully-body scanners reveal metallic and non-metallic items Greg Soule, a spokesperson for the Transportation Security Agency, was cited as saying in a December 31, 2009 Christian Science Monitor article: "'It has the ability to detect both metallic and non-metallic threats under the clothing of a passenger. And that can include both improvised explosive devices as well as firearms."[2]
  • Full-body scans make terrorist attacks more difficult Michael Chertoff, the former homeland security secretary, said in an interview: “nothing is 100 percent [but] The more difficult you make it for someone to conceal weapons, the fewer people who are going to be willing or capable of concealment.”[3]


  • Terrorists will change tactics to avoid airport scanners Bruce Schneier, a security expert who has been critical of full-body scanners, said to the New York Times in December of 2009: "If there are a hundred tactics and I protect against two of them, I’m not making you safer. If we use full-body scanning, they’re going to do something else."[4]
  • Scanners do not reveal things in body cavities Full-body scanners are incapable of revealing explosives hidden in body cavities, which has been an age-old method for smuggling contraband. Future terrorist plots are likely to include such efforts, and have the potential to get-around body scanners.
  • Scanners do not detect low-density items very well A British defense-research firm reportedly found that full-body scanners can be unreliable in detecting "low-density" materials like plastics, chemicals, and liquids, which is what the 2009 Christmas "underwear bomber" had stuffed in his briefs. While a hazy outline is often revealed for such items, the blurriness can often prevent the detection of such items, particularly when hundreds of thousands of passengers are being screened daily.[5]
  • Full-body scanners will slow airport security check-points. The International Air Transport Association says the scanning process will take 45 seconds for each passenger, which would create two-to-five-hour flight delays, according to Andrew Compart, senior editor for Aviation Week.
  • Full-body scanners distract from human intelligence Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical intelligence at the global consultancy Stratford, criticized body scanners in a quote in Time magazine in 2010: "We have a tendency to over-rely on technology, especially Americans, instead of human intelligence."[6]

Rights: Are fully-body scanners consistent with individual rights?


  • Protecting life with scanners more important than privacy A January 2010 front-page editorial in the German daily Die Welt: "Privacy finds its limits when the life of others is at risk, and that is the case in this matter. People who are worried and put their privacy above the lives of others should not underestimate the extent to which Germans would like to stay alive."[7]
  • Outlines can be obscured to protect privacy. In many existing full-body scanners, faces can be obscured or bodies reduced to the equivalent of a chalk outline. Such measures can eliminate risk of scans violating privacy and child-porn laws.
  • Scanned body images are ghost-like, not pornographic Scott Armstrong, spokesperson for the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, said in December of 2009 in response to the Christmas Day terror attempt: "They are not naked images. It's more like a ghost-like outline."[9] Body scans are not, therefore, akin to a "virtual strip-search" or a "peep show" as critics have claimed.
  • Scanning procedure is always optional to all passengers. Anyone who refuses to be scanned will receive an equivalent screening in a full pat-down. So, the passenger has the choice, and is not coerced into receiving what may be viewed by the individual as an intrusive "virtual strip search". The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority, for example, implemented such a program in May of 2010 at Kelowna airport in B.C., where passengers were body-scanned on a voluntary basis, apparently without major complaint.[10]
  • Some scanners use software, not eyes, to detect potential weapons. Some scanners have new software that don't need a human operator. The computer looks at the picture and can analyze the picture without human screeners looking on, and without the subsequent privacy and abuse concerns.[11]


  • Body scanners at airports violate privacy Jay Stanley, a privacy expert in the ACLU's Washington office: "Giving the government the authority to scrutinize your body is tremendous invasion of privacy, and the benefits are questionable."[12]
  • Privacy rights need not be sacrificed for security Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said on January 9th, 2010: "We don't need to look at naked 8-year-olds and grandmothers to secure airplanes. Are we really going to subject 2 million people per day to that? I think it's a false argument to say we have to give up all of our personal privacy in order to have security."[14]
  • Full-body scans intrude on those not suspected of crimes A letter of protest from a coalition of 24 privacy organizations to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, including the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the American Civil Liberties Union: "Your agency will be capturing the naked photographs of millions of American air travelers suspected of no wrongdoing."[15]

Child protections: Do full-body scanners protect rights of minors?


  • Minors can be exempted from full-body scans. Minors can be exempted from full-body scans if necessary. Such policies have been implemented in many airports. Such policies can be implemented without abandoning the benefits of body scans all-together.
  • Scanners can be modified to accommodate children. Terrorist groups do not do age discrimination when it comes to situations of terrorist's acts. However, #1 the photographs can be obscured or face can be covered while scanning showcasing pictures like these. #2 the pictures are ghostly (i.e they don affect privacy issues for minors) #3 the new full body scan machines are well equipped to make such security checks are not obscene. We shouldn't gamble with lives on issues which can be tackled by policies & technology.


  • Full-body scanners violate child protection laws. The rapid introduction of full body scanners at British airports threatens to breach child protection laws which ban the creation of indecent images of children. There is a certain risk that naked images of children from scans could be distributed over the Internet. But, even if such abuses are prevented, it is wrong for security screeners to be able to view these nude images.
  • Body scans will make many children and parents uncomfortable. Body scans will make many parents as well as children uncomfortable about an unknown security screeners viewing a child's genitalia and buttocks. And, while some parents may be willing to put their children through such an exposure, the discomfort felt by many others is of major concern.

Vs. alternatives: Are full-body scanners more effective than the alternatives?


  • Full-body scans more effectively reveal concealed weapons. Full-body scans look under the cloths to clearly reveal potential weapons and bombs. Pat-downs cannot do this as effectively, as they rely on touch. Thick clothing can avoid detection by pat-downs, and pat-downs cannot enter into the genital and buttocks areas sufficiently (do to privacy concerns), which is why weapons are often concealed in under-wear. Scanners get around these potential hick-ups, effectively revealing any potential weapons and bombs in these sensitive areas of the body.
  • Full-body scanners are less intrusive than pat-downs Scanners involve a person looking at a rough outline of the body in a separate room without knowing the identity of the person. Pat-downs involve a security agent touching the body of an individual and seeing that person's face and identity. The former is far less intrusive, considering that touching is a greater violation than seeing, and because knowing someone's identity in connection with a pat-down search is a problem.
  • Scans apply to everyone, avoid "profiling" with pat-downs. One of the problems of relying on selective security pat-downs is that it is often dependent upon assumptions surrounding a persons ethnicity or religion. Scanners avoid this by searching everyone without regard to race or religion.


  • There are better alternatives to body scanners at airports Chris McBee, director of sales and marketing for Syagen Technology, developed a prototype called The Guardian. TSA contributed $1.5 million but did not continue the program. That’s unfortunate, Mr. McBee says: "We have a better mousetrap. There are solutions out there that are viable alternatives to whole body imaging and that have superior detection characteristics." In addition to The Guardian, others say that a device called "the puffer" has advantages. The device relies on puffed air to knock-loose and detect possible bomb materials on a passenger. This allows for the superior detection of hard-to-find materials in places like body cavities. And, it also avoids the privacy implications of full-body scanners.[16]
  • Alternatives to body scanners don't sacrifice privacy U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Utah Republican, told The Salt Lake Tribune in Washington: "It's a difficult balance between protecting our civil liberties and protecting the safety of people on airplanes. I believe there's technology out there that can identify bomb-type materials without necessarily, overly invading our privacy."[17]

Health: Are full-body scanners a minimal health risk?


  • Full-body scanners pose less risk than most natural radiation. The doses delivered by the scanners are tiny by any standard. Passengers would get the same dose in a few minutes in a high-altitude jet, where most of the earth’s atmosphere is not available to shield people from the cosmic rays.[18]
  • Full-body scans are well within radiation standards A spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration, Kristin Lee, said in a January 2010, New York Times article that even for pregnant women, children and people whose genetic makeup made them more susceptible to X-ray damage, "It would take more than 1,000 screenings per individual per year" to exceed radiation standards.[19]


  • The probability that a full body scan will induce cancer is comparable to the probability of dying because of a plane being blown up. [20]

Economics: Is the price of full-body scanners reasonable/worth-it?


The price of a human life is incalculable. Comparing the cost of a body scanner to the cost of saving human lives from a mid-air attack, foreign or domestic, is pointless. A human life's value, its potential to grow, prosper, and contribute to society, cannot be compared to the estimated retail price of a machine.


  • Full-body scanners cannot replace human security staff in terms of cost-efficiency Although the fact is conceded that full-body scanners may be more effective in terms of increasing security, it is not economically possible for the company to completely rely airport security on these machines. They are expensive to manufacture in the first place. Secondly, they require constant maintenance that will always persist as a spot on the airport's budget allocated. Third, replacement for these machines will be costlier and time-consuming to perform as compared to replacing human security staff.

  • Full-body scanners are very expensive. They can cost around $150,000 each. This is very expensive, when considering that any proposal to have a comprehensive system of full-body scanners in nations internationally would require hundreds of these machines. This is particularly true when you consider that many of these machines must be placed in an airport in order to maintain short security lines.[21]

Pro/con sources




Dr. Jennifer Ashton on full-body scanners

See also

External links and resources

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