Better Safe?

By Deane, Alexander | Review - Institute of Public Affairs, June 2010 | Go to article overview

Better Safe?


Deane, Alexander, Review - Institute of Public Affairs


The Rudd government's upgrade of airport security will do more harm than good, argues Alexander Deane.

At the beginning of 2010, the British and US governments approved the introduction of body scanners at international airports. In both cases, the impetus behind their implementation was the case of Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up a flight to Detroit on which he was a passenger. He had flown from Yemen via Lagos and Holland's S chiphol Airport.

Kevin Rudd has since announced his intention to install body scanners in all of Australia's international airports.

Full body scanners act like X-ray machines, allowing airport security to penetrate fabric and see items pressed against flyers' bodies.

Sounds like a good investment? It isn't. Body scanners don't work. They're not needed. They invade privacy. And they're potentially unsafe.

Under test conditions on live German TV, Werner Gruber, an Austrian physics professor, smuggled a detonator, several bottles of explosive powder, a knife and crystal explosives through a scanner operated by a representative from the company that makes them. The operators had advance notice that an attempt to deceive the scanners was being made, a courtesy presumably not extended by terrorists, and the operators had ample opportunity to prepare and (one imagines) had their best controller using the device for the TV test. It still failed.

In evidence before a Canadian parliamentary group investigating scanners Rafi SeIa, a leading Israeli security expert has openly derided them as 'useless'. Sela's experience is acquired in a country which really knows something about security, and has no plan to introduce scanners.

One problem seems to be that the scanners cannot penetrate beneath skin. So hiding material in body cavities or in implants conceals them from the scanners entirely.

What if they are only a tiny bit effective? We are constantly told 'if it makes us a little safer, it's worth it' - 'if it saves one life, stops one crime ...'But this is a specious argument. It would 'save one child' to ban the motor car, or introduce a night curfew, but we don't, because it would be disproportionate and we have to get on with normal life, even if we incur a slightly higher element of risk in doing so. We don't encourage people to take wild risks with cars, but we don't make libertyreducing and disproportionate laws, either. We should react to the threat of terrorism in just the same way.

But even if they could be made to work, scanners would be disproportionate and unnecessary. President Obama has said that Abdulmutallab was able to get onto the Detroit flight because of systemic failure by the security services with the information they already had. Rather than ensuring that those authorities competently use what they've already got, both the USA and the UK are giving more power and new tools to the same systemically incompetent organisations whose incompetence caused the problem in the first place.

Let us remember the tools already available to the services entrusted with significant powers and large budgets in order to protect us. First of all, and most importantly, intelligence - ranging from the research and knowledge and expertise of the security services to the commonsense and experience of border guards. Secondly, infrared scanners which don't show your body parts. Thirdly, sniffer dogs. Fourthly, standard metal detectors. Fifthly, swabs to detect explosive material particles. So it's hardly as if we're without protections already. All of these devices are cheap, they work, they're available now, and they don't violate privacy. Scanners are expensive, they don't work, they're not available in large quantities for months and they violate privacy.

And when I say they're expensive, they're expensive. They cost between $130,000 and $160,000 each. If one then thinks of the size of a major international airport, one swiftly appreciates that's a lot of scanners.

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