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It all started in the USA, apparently like everything else does these days!
9/11 changed every life on this planet and introduced air passengers to the indignity of Full Body searches. It took the USA a full decade to get this one going, so we are not miles behind. In 2010, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), itself a byproduct of the 9/11 panic, introduced Whole Body Imaging at airport checkpoints across the USA. Over the last 6 years, many countries have slowly, but surely, adopted the technology, amidst negative public reaction.
By the end of 2016, New Delhi’s IGI airport would try out its very own Full Body Scanner.
About the Technology – Whole Body Imaging (WBI)
A Full Body Scanner uses radiation technology to detect anomalous objects on a person’s body (both metallic and non-metallic), without removing clothes or making physical contact. There are essentially two types of instrument in use today. They are:
- Back Scatter X-Ray Machines: These use a narrow, low energy x-ray beam, that scans the surface of the human body at high speed. The image has a privacy filter, displaying only chalk sketching of the body under scan.
- MM Wave AIT Machines: These use non-ionizing radio frequency energy in the millimeter wave spectrum to produce a 3D image based on the energy reflected by the body. The image is like a photo-negative with a blurred face to ensure privacy.
The IGI airport is finally testing the MM wave machine, after having discussed the adoption of the technology for the last 3 years.
So, they can see through my clothes? Like some Bond gadget?
Privacy is one of the key concerns, that have delayed adoption of the technology. Even in the US and the UK, where the technology is widespread today, a large segment of activists has protested this indiscriminate intrusion of privacy. People feel that it is against their right to life and privacy to have to reveal their private body enhancements – including medical/aesthetic body implants, body piercings or simply body contours.
In more countries, like India and the Islamic nations, the concern is more intense, factoring for cultural and religious issues.
In 2010, two British Muslim women, who were randomly selected to go through the scanner, chose instead to give up their tickets to Islamabad, as reported by Thaindian News. Such incidents are fairly commonplace in airports using the whole body imagingWBI technology.
In response to the overwhelming concerns from human rights organizations, manufacturers have started using Automated Target Recognition (ATR) technology. This technology ensures that the machine shows only a generic human outline with a marking on the location of an anomaly.
Also, almost every airport this technology is used, travelers may choose to opt out of the scan. They can opt for a pat-down instead. However, there have been reports of excessively intrusive pat downs in some parts of US, making the WBI a much less intrusive option, in context.
All this radiation business makes me nervous.
The health hazards of the technology are still being actively researched. The MM wave scanners are believed to be fairly safe since they do not emit ionizing radiation.
The Backscatter X-ray systems are still contentious and some people believe, may be carcinogenic, on regular or faulty exposure.
In addition to that, travelers with specific medical conditions may be exempted from the scan and need to be offered an alternate search method – like a pat down.
Hopefully, the technology is fail-safe, since the cost is humiliation and murder of privacy!
Well, there’s a catch.
A study, published in the Journal of Transportation Security, has propounded that the full body scanners may be evaded. Miscreants may have found ways to hide material in body cavities etc., that might fool the WBI technology. A terrorist, the report found, could tape a thin film of explosives of about 15–20 centimeters in diameter to the stomach and walk through the machine undetected. Therefore, it cannot be proclaimed as a 100% perfect technology.
Besides, the technology falls short in identifying security threats inside turbans, hijab, burqas, casts, prosthetics and loose clothing. So, often, additional physical screenings must be employed anyhow.
But, it is more efficient than the conventional metal detector technology.
In the grip of the terror economy
Unfortunately, the right to private life is becoming an outdated concept. The more we submit ourselves to the fear of terrorism, the more we are bound to have intrusive security measures invade our private lives. While the world debates, NSA and similar security intrusions are modern realities we have come to accept and live with. The Full Body Scanner is another step in the war against terrorism, that we seem to be making no progress in. As a traveler, we should:
- Be mindful of our body and health, and ask for help/alternatives where possible
- Know our rights
- Be informed of locations that use the technology
- Be co-operative with authorities for a hassle-free transit
What do you think about the Whole Body Imaging technology as a pervasive security measure? Do you think it is a necessary evil or an inefficient intrusion? Comment here or write to us at email@example.com
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