Sacrificing privacy without ensuring airport security

The Australian

The announcement in February of the scanners by then prime minister Kevin Rudd and Transport Minister Anthony Albanese, hard on the heels of a visit from US Homeland Security chief Jane Holl Lute, took local radiation safety and privacy experts by surprise.

“We will introduce a range of new screening technologies for departing international passengers in 2011,” Mr Rudd said then.

“These include the latest body scanners, next-generation multi-view X-ray machines and bottle scanners capable of detecting liquid-based explosives.”

The issue has slipped under the radar since funding was allocated in the federal budget. It is being handled by the Office of Transport Security, which tested the controversial “backscatter” machines at Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne airports in late 2008.

The “naked” images of passengers seen by screeners provoked a privacy backlash.

A spokesman for Mr Albanese said the government had not yet made a decision on the type of scanner to be introduced, as this was subject to further consideration of health and privacy issues.

“The department has been discussing the safety of body scanners with the government’s radiation regulator, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency,” he said yesterday.

“The use of X-ray scanners at airports will also have to be authorised by state and territory radiation regulators.”

While the technology is being used in several US and British airports, public health and security experts remain divided on its safety and efficacy.

Victoria’s deputy privacy commissioner, Anthony Bendall, has warned that body scanners are an example of what US security expert Bruce Schneier calls “security theatre”.

“They give the illusion of safety without actually making us safer,” Dr Bendall said.

“The devices cannot detect low-density materials hidden under clothing such as liquid, powder or thin plastics. Nor can they detect materials of any density hidden in body cavities. In other words, they sacrifice our privacy without ensuring our security.”

Dr Bendall said the high-resolution images derived from “rastering” (a single high-energy X-ray beam moved rapidly over the body) allowed realistic pictures to be reconstructed.

“Overwhelmingly, the greatest privacy concern is that images will be stored and transmitted,” he said.

“As soon as a celebrity is required to use a scanner, the temptation to save the picture and send it to the tabloids will be almost irresistible.”

Dr Bendall said it was possible to design and use body scanners in a way that protects privacy without diminishing security, “but governments have consistently failed to do so”.

According to ARPANSA, it was not consulted before Mr Rudd’s announcement and there is currently no international consensus on the safety of the devices.

ARPANSA’s safety advisory council said the use of radiation in non-medical situations was considered “a planned exposure”, and any public benefits must be clearly proven before deployment.

It is understood ARPANSA chief executive Carl-Magnus Larsson has written to Radiation Health Committee members for advice on state and territory plans to regulate the use of scanners.

Earlier this year, OTS executive director Paul Retter told the Senate Transport committee he was confident advances in technology would resolve any outstanding privacy concerns.

According to the OTS, the body scanners would cost between $120,000 and $240,000 a unit and total installation cost would be shared by the government and the aviation industry.

The Infrastructure and Transport department would “consider all issues associated with the new technologies, including privacy, health and the legality of subjecting children to scanning”.

The OTS has outsourced its consultation to the federal Privacy Commissioner’s office, which has been paid more than $200,000 to meet stakeholders.

Five organisations representing key civil liberties and privacy groups wrote to Mr Albanese about media reports that suggest airport body scanners would be introduced as early as January 20.

While agreeing “threats to life and limb are the grossest form of assault on civil liberties and privacy” requiring strong counter-measures, “such assessments need to be conducted calmly and to be based on evidence rather than mere assertions”, they wrote.

The organisations were among public interest representatives who attended a privacy roundtable last month.

A full privacy impact assessment has been proposed before the project goes ahead.

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