Terrorism and privacy

So, once again a terrorist associated with al-Qa’ida has nearly taken out an aeroplane, and governments are scrabbling around trying to find ways to prevent that exact type of attack from ever happening again. This time, we are being threatened with full-body scanners, and Gordon Brown — against official advice — has decided to install these things, which cost £80,000 apiece, at all British airports. Then there are the even more ridiculous reactive measures, such as banning people getting out of their seats, even for the toilet, in the last hour, because that’s when the attempt on Christmas Day happened, as if terrorists won’t just switch to letting the devices off before that. (More: Umar Lee, Ginny.)

Today, it was revealed that the scanners could not be used on travellers under 18 as that would break child pornography laws, which prohibit naked images of people under that age (a trial at Manchester airport went ahead only after under-18s were exempted). There are also worries that images of celebrities or “people with unusual or freakish body profiles” would be exploited by some security staff.

The disability group blog FWD/Forward notes that all manner of medical items will show up in the scans, among them catheters, incontinence pads, colostomy bags, breast implants and prostheses, and the genitalia of people with intersex conditions:

People with marginalised bodies already have major issues with air travel – with the uncertainty of the security process, with the practicalities of dealing with aids and needs while travelling, with the spoon-sapping of travel, with no option but unfamiliar foods that may affect the body unpredictably, with the difficulty of maintaining personal privacy in prolonged periods in close quarters with others, with unpredictable delays that affect health, with security threats when bodies don’t ‘match’ identification documents.

Soon there may be one more element in the mix: the sure knowledge that one’s personal business will be laid bare in front of security-theatre goons who will almost certainly be poorly trained in disability awareness and gender tolerance.

I give it 24 hours before clandestine mobile phone images of travellers with marginalised bodies show up on the Internet.

The discussion which follows is worth reading, in my opinion; it touches on whether scanning is preferable to pat-downs or not, and the extent to which security staff (or “security theatre goons” as the post calls them) can be relied on to be sensitive to the needs of people with various disabilities and medical conditions. Someone advanced the idea that Israeli methods of ensuring airport security are worth exploring as throughput is vastly quicker than at British or American airports, although others countered that the authorities there are open that racial profiling is an important part of it, that “most of my Muslim friends (or people of descent that leads to them being assumed to be Muslim) who have attempted to enter Israel have experienced as a component of their security procedures their willingness to profile people of a particular religion and detain them for 8+ hours in a little room while periodically questioning and harassing them” and that some people with disabilities such as autism might fall foul of their behavioural profiling methods. (The notorious case of Maysoon Zayid should serve as a warning to anyone advocating Israeli methods as a complete solution.)

Gary Younge, in yesterday’s Guardian, noted the pattern of reactive and repressive security measures following terrorist attacks (or attempts), which are often fruitless in terms of catching actual terrorists, alongside failure of the authorities to do their jobs properly and take notice of intelligence which is available, to the extent that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was able to get onto a plane after his own father had warned that he was a terrorist threat. Meanwhile, the much-resented liquids restrictions in the UK are, it turns out, not being enforced rigorously: news reports emerged that the ban was breached in the past week, while this lady reported various inconsistencies and confusion on different parts of her recent journeys.

Still, one aspect of this case which has not been adequately discussed is the fact that these scanners represent the first case in which non-suspect people are subjected to this kind of invasion of their privacy to non-medical staff: an image of them naked. If this gains general acceptance, it will be much less easy to object to any future invasion: it will be said, “you get seen naked every time you fly; what’s so objectionable about this?”. Given that experts believe that such scanners will not detect explosives and other chemicals, only objects, it is difficult to see how they will prevent anything that existing security measures, if implemented properly, would not prevent. It will simply give the state more licence to impose more intrusive “security” measures whenever they claim there is a need. It should be resisted vigorously.

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