January 11, 2010

Body Scanners and Personal Privacy

Posted in Current Events at 11:40 pm by sacetalks

Transport Minister John Baird recently announced that Canadian airports will begin using body scanners as part of their passenger screening protocols. These scanners are intended to detect whether travellers have concealed weapons or explosives under their clothing. When a person steps into the unit, a three-dimensional image of their body is projected onto a screen in a separate room. Transport Canada states that screening officers will be in a separate room and will not actually see the person who is being scanned. This may offer comfort to some passengers, but for others, the fact that the scan reveals intimate details of their body may be enough to keep them from flying.

Body scans can potentially show whether an individual is concealing explosives or weapons under their clothing, but they can also reveal many other things that people may wish to keep private. Scanners can detect objects such as urinary catheters, mastectomy prostheses, incontinence and menstrual pads, and other medical or personal care items. For persons with disAbilities, having such intimate details of their bodies revealed may be uncomfortable or potentially shaming. Women who are menstruating might prefer to keep that information private. A person who has survived cancer may not want a mastectomy prosthesis exposed to others. These scanners, through their visual invasion of people’s bodies, may pose a significant threat to people’s sense of privacy and safety.

For transgender people, body scanners pose an additional threat to their personal bodily integrity. People’s genitals are included in the scan, which may forcibly out some trans people. Other aspects of that person’s body may also be seen–breasts, any bindings or wrappings used, prosthetics–exposing trans people to the possibility of additional questioning by security screeners who may demand a person explain their gender presentation or subject that person to additional bodily invasions through further screening procedures.

For survivors of sexualized violence, the experience of being scanned may in itself be triggering. Survivors may feel deeply threatened by this enforced subjection to a scan, over which the person has no control, which will be analysed by an unseen, unknown authority. For a person who has already experienced a significant invasion of self, the repeat invasion of the scan may be frightening enough for them to decide not to fly. With body scans being mandatory on US-bound flights and used as random screening on flights to other destinations, there is no way to avoid the scan with any certainty, unless the individual chooses to submit to another invasive option, the full-body patdown search. For some survivors, this may leave them with no way out except to stay at home or use ground transportation instead.

It’s hard to justify subjecting thousands of people every day to such invasive security procedures, particularly when those procedures have not yet been shown to be particularly effective. Other “surefire” means of detecting explosives and weapons have failed: “puffer” systems and other elements of security theatre have done little to protect people and much to generate a culture of fear and disempower travellers. The best means of dealing with violence in the air has proven to be passenger vigilance and action, not technology. In reality, the threat of bombings, hijackings and other incidents has decreased over time; air travellers now are significantly safer from violent incidents than they were anytime prior to the 1990s (numbers have been fairly steady since then). In light of that, it seems unnecessary to invade people’s bodies on such a massive scale.

Further reading:

Body scanners coming to Canadian airports

Body Scans, Disability, Menstruation and Security Theatre

National Centre for Transgender Equality: Whole Body Imaging FAQ

Backscatter X-ray scanners, security theatre, and marginalised bodies

The Skies Are as Friendly as Ever: 9/11, Al Qaeda Obscure Statistics on Airline Safety


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