Wondering what they’ll scan next?

Two recent events have brought airport security back into the headlines:

  1. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab‘s attempt to detonate explosives on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, and
  2. a botched security exercise by the Slovakian authorities which resulted in explosives being imported, undetected, into Ireland.

These events have introduced another exciting and slightly terrifying technology: the full body scanner, the arrival of which in Ireland appears inevitable.

This technology raises, once again, the contemporary conflict between security and privacy. What is sometimes missed in the aftermath of a terrorist attack or attempt is that the conflict requires a balance to be struck, rather than one side trumping the other.

“The big question to [the US] is how to balance the need for personal privacy with the safety and security needs of our country,” said Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican who sponsored a successful measure in the House this year to require that the devices be used only as a secondary screening method and to set punishments for government employees who copy or share images. (The bill has not passed in the Senate.)

“I’m on an airplane every three or four days; I want that plane to be as safe and secure as possible,” Mr. Chaffetz said. However, he added, “I don’t think anybody needs to see my 8-year-old naked in order to secure that airplane.”

As technology becomes increasingly sophisticated and invasive, the difficulty in finding the balance increases proportionately.

Some have already reached a clear conclusion: get over it. USA Today plays the out-of-touch politician card with opinion poll suggesting that 78% support body scanners, but legislators voted to ban the machines because they can see through clothing.

It’s a simple choice: safety over modesty, the same trade-off you make to get an annual physical. With the failed Christmas Day bombing plot fresh in mind, the Senate, which has yet to vote on the House bill, should do a better job of sorting priorities.

But this is not the choice facing citizens.

As Gerry Byrne points out, “there is a historical precedent for each security action.”  A corollary of this is that we are not finished with new security measures and are faced with the prospect of invasive security by default, backed up by a mentality that holds you have nothing to fear if you’ve done nothing wrong.

So, the obvious question is: what will they scan next? Unfortunately, we already know the answer: your brain.

It might sound improbable, but “mind reading” technology has been under development for some time. The challenge, for the developers, will be to differentiate between the passenger who is nervous because they plan on blowing up an airplane and the passenger who is just nervous because they have to travel on an airplane; but imperfections in a techology are no guarantee against its introduction.

Security agencies and worried passengers prioritise the implementation of new technological security measures as a source of comfort and are content to worry about civil rights and social issues later. Instead, these issues should be considered at each step. The development of a vast, information-hungry security system is already underway. Where will it stop?

Endnote: The contemporary importance of the right to privacy is handled expertly in an episode of The West Wing which covers nominations to the US Supreme Court and which culminates in a stirring monologue by Sam Seaborn:

The next 20 years it will be about privacy. The internet. Cell phones. Health records. And who’s gay and who’s not. Besides, in a country born on the will to be free, what could be more fundamental than this?

Fans of The West Wing might also remember a relevant 2004 episode in which press secretary C.J. Cregg is asked by a blogger about the development of mind control technology by DARPA. She treats the suggestion as ridiculous, but later discovers that there might be something to the story, albeit to do with mind reading rather than control.

In real life, something similar did happen. A privacy advocate working in Washington DC told me a few years ago of a wide-eyed acquaintance who suggested the existence of such technology. Thinking the suggestion crazy, he nevertheless lobbed in a FOIA request in the event something might come out of it. Sure enough, he received a sheaf of heavily-redacted technological specifications and presentations outlining the technology, then at the early stages of development. Truth really can be stranger than fiction.

2 thoughts on “Wondering what they’ll scan next?

  1. Oddly I was watching that episode of the West Wing over the weekend! One of the issues that doesn’t seem to be getting a huge amount of attention in all of this is the health dimension to rolling out the new scanners.

    Lacking scientific training, and at risk of sounding like a luddite, I note that the US specifications suggest that this system can be based on X-rays. Notwithstanding the various standards that this device is required to comply with, I wonder if repetitive exposure to such X-rays (particularly in the case of frequent flyers) would be apt to have any long term health impacts.

    On the mind reading (or more, accurately, facial reading) point, there was a recent exhibit in the Science Gallery in Trinity last year exploring the likely commercial implications of such a technology. A video about the exhibit is [here] and is worth a look.

  2. The risk appears to be relatively low. See Reuters and from the New York Times:

    Dr. Albert J. Fornace Jr., an expert in molecular oncology at Georgetown University Medical Center, said such a low dose was inconsequential, even for pregnant women.

    “Obviously, no radiation is even better than even a very low level,” Dr. Fornace said. “But this is trivial.”

    But David J. Brenner, a professor of radiation oncology at Columbia University, said that even though the risk for any individual was extremely low, he would still avoid it.

    “The question is, Do you want to add to your already existing risk?” Professor Brenner said, recommending that pregnant women and young children, in particular, avoid the device. “There are other technologies around that can probably do the job just as well without the extra radiation.”

    But then, advocates of body scanners say that risk of privacy right infringement is low. I suspect the answer to health questions would likewise be: get over it.

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