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Full-Body Scanners: Duff and Dangerous

September 4, 2010

In June 2010, Siim Kallas, the European Commissioner for Transport, finally presented his 2-month overdue and eagerly anticipated report on the use of security scanners at EU airports to the European parliament. It was dire! A vague, wishy-washy stuttering response which no EU minister would ever be able to use as a guide on the issue of scanners.

One paragraph in particular grabbed my attention:

“Overall tests carried out in laboratories and as part of operational trials at airports in several countries show a reliable security performance and in particular an enhanced detection probability for non-metallic items and liquids compared to walk-through metal detectors. Although questions were raised whether Security Scanners would have been able to prevent the Detroit incident of 25 December 2009, it is clear that given the technology at hand today, the Security Scanners would have maximised the probability to detect the threats and will provide us with a considerably enhanced prevention capability.”

“Reliable security performance” as part of “operational trials”? Really? Who have they caught?

“Whether scanners would have prevented the Detroit incident”? They didn’t, in spite of being installed at the airport the underwear bomber used.

Considerably enhanced prevention capability”? That is yet to be seen.

Just how “reliable” are the scanners at detecting these so-called ‘threats’? To my knowledge there have never been any cases of the detection of explosive materials or other non-metallic weapons through the scanners. So how can they possibly know if the scanners are effective or not?

The technology 1. Active Millimetre Wave Scanners

A popular choice in Europe, this scanner (image above) uses radiowaves somewhere between mobile phone and microwave frequencies to virtually strip-search its subject. Even though the technology is favoured by all but one of the scanner manufacturers, it is clear to see why it is not a market leader. Let’s be frank now, it’s crap! If you want to hide something under your clothes and you happen to be travelling from Amsterdam, Paris or Milan where Millimetre Wave scanners are in use, I think it’s safe to say that you need to hide the object in your sleeves and not taped to your stomach as in the image above and you’ll have no problem passing security.

Obviously a terrorist. Proud mother laughs as her 3-year-old is electronically strip-searched in a Millimetre Wave scanner.
Obviously a terrorist. Proud mother laughs as her 3-year-old is electronically strip-searched in a Millimetre Wave scanner.

Many seem to be under the impression (especially the UK government) that this technology is somewhat inoffensive and poses little risk to our health. However, there is growing concern that this type of scanner currently in use at Schiphol and Paris Charles de Gaulle, the so-called ‘Active Millimetre Wave’, can do some nasty things with your DNA. In fact, the US military has been playing with the technology in its laboratories for some time and they claim to have developed a weapon system called Active Denial System (ADS) which emits a beam of Millimetre Wave radiation which they say is “not dangerous and causes no physical harm”, but is extremely painful and causes the target to feel an intense burning pain, as if your skin is going to catch fire. How delightful!

Non cancer causing Passive Millimetre Wave scanning technology does exist, but produces images even worse that that of its active cousin.

I am not alone in my criticism of the technology. UK Conservative MP Ben Wallace, ex-employee of Millimetre Wave technology developers QinetiQ, claimed that the scanners “probably would not have detected the Christmas day bomber”. I think we can be more daring than that Mr Wallace. They didn’t detect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called Christmas Day bomber, AKA the underpants bomber. The bizarre journey of Mr Abdulmutallab, who it is claimed concealed a liquid explosive in his clothes on a trip from Lagos, Nigeria to Detroit, took him through Schiphol Airport (Amsterdam) and was not detected at all by the Millimetre Wave scanners already in place there since 2007. It was the strange case of Abdulmutallab that sparked the latest push for scanners at all international airports.

So why use Millimetre Wave scanners that so clearly failed to stop the terrorist of the moment?

The technology 2. Backscatter (x-ray) scanners

The king of the hill at the moment is the Rapiscan Secure 1000 backscatter radiation scanner. It beats the MMw competition on both cost and image quality. Every nook, cranny, wrinkle, appendix scar, colostomy bag, mastectomy prosthesis and mole will be seen through this scanner. At first, a rumour was spread throughout the press that the backscattered radiation could not penetrate skin. But as we can all see from this official Rapiscan produced image (below) the radiation is so powerful that even some of your bones may be exposed. Just look at the tibiae on this unsuspecting Heathrow security guard!

Backscatter image
Backscatter image

Clearly, an ionising radiation scanner with that kind of penetration has to come with its own health risks. On the side of government and the manufacturer the risk is considered “negligble” when it is measured in Micro Sieverts and compared with an average dose of cosmic radiation received by passengers on a flight. However, since the announcement of the international mass roll-out of scanners, alarm bells have been ringing in the scientific community. One of the most interesting came from a group of four scientists at the University of California in San Francisco (UCSF). They explain how electrons shot from a Backscatter type scanner should not be compared to cosmic radiation, as UK and US government agencies have.

Cosmic rays (gamma radiation) pass through the human body in quick bursts travelling in a straight line, entering one side and exiting the other. On a transatlantic flight the effect would be immeasurably small. However, our scientists at UCSF explain how the radiation from the Rapiscan machine works differently.  The scanning device shoots electrons at its subjects with just enough power to penetrate clothing and skin. The electrons progressively lose inertia on their journey and once they have lost the power to penetrate any further (i.e. they hit a bone), they bounce back. A percentage of electrons return to the reader on the scanner and an image is produced. It is entirely conceivable therefore that some of the energy does not have enough oomph to leave the body again. Radiation builds up below the surface of the skin and therefore the risk of cancer and other malformation greatly increases.

The theory is almost impossible to prove or disprove with 100% stone-cold science, as much as it is impossible for our governments to prove that the scanners are safe. Although government reassurances do tend to remind me of old Camels cigarettes advertisements with doctors endorsing tobacco. Perhaps we will have to wait as many decades as we did with tobacco to discover if backscattered radiation is all that deadly or not.

Trust the government. They know what they are doing.
Like we trusted the Camels’ doctors we must trust the government. They know what they are doing.

But is the health risk worth it? The case for the defence of scanners usually claims that any health risk is worth it if it prevents another tragedy like 9/11. This presupposes that the scanners actually work and that there is a significant threat out there, of course.

The official story tells us that on the 11th of September, 2001, boxcutters were smuggled aboard 4 planes. Ever since the sensitivity of airport metal detectors has been increased to the point where we have to shuffle beltless through security points. A few months later an inept would-be terrorist smuggled a substance vaguely similar to an explosive in his shoes and we then had to remove our shoes before flying. Now beltless and shoeless, Abdulmutallab supposedly hid a similarly duff explosive in his trousers we were told that it would be necessary to reveal the contents of our underwear to security guards in order to fly.

Now that all human dignity has been brushed aside, will the Rapiscan Secure 1000 save our sorry souls from the terrorist bogeyman? … Not a chance!

Below is an image of UK artist John Wild. In 2006, while visiting a security trade fair in London, John was offered the chance to be scanned by the Rapiscan salespeople. He was then allowed to keep a copy of the image to use in an artwork he was preparing. Clearly, the radiation was not only powerful enough to penetrate the heavy suit he was wearing, but also his leather shoes and belt. In fact, there is no sign whatsoever of anything John was wearing other than the metal buttons on his trousers and the loose change in his pocket. If the Backscatter scanner is powerful enough to penetrate something with the physical density of leather and leave little or no trace, how then could it possibly detect a powder or liquid-based explosive, such as PETN?

Rapiscan imagery down to the bone.
Rapiscan imagery down to the bone.

The fact is, it can’t.

Scanners Plan also Duff!

So, how can full-body scanners prevent acts of terrorism of planes? The idea is that if all the airports in all of the world had scanners, no flights anywhere would be affected by suicide terrorists. Well, I’m afraid we are off to a bad start. No middle-Eastern countries, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, Yemen or Dubai,  have signed up to the plan. Few African and Asian states and only Europe, North America and Australia seem to feel an urgent need to defend its air departures with radioactive imagery. So, the plan is a sham before we have even started.

But don’t take my word for it, let’s ask the experts:

Colin McSeveny, a spokesman for FBS manufacturer Smiths Detection Ltd. which makes Active Millimetre Wave body scanners said thatPoliticians like Gordon Brown want to get a move on, but these technologies are still in trials. They are not ready yet.”

The current director of Interpol claimed earlier this year that the plan was “flawed”. Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Interpol Secretary-General Ronald K. Noble argued that better intelligence and information sharing between countries was required, rather than wide-scale body scanning technology.

The US and Canadian Association of Airline Pilots (ALPA) have described the use of FBS at airport security points as an “inadequate response” which leaves current airport security procedures little more than apatchwork of band-aids”.

So, why implement scanners if they don’t work?

It’s hard to ignore the economic enormity of the security industry. 9/11 was an atrocious tragedy to most and a goldmine for others. There needs to be a constant threat looming over the public, a perpetual war, in order to maintain the influence of the security lobby. No crisis means no income for too many these days. And what politicians do best is throw money where the lobbyists say without studying what the problem is… or if one really exists. Could someone around here be crying wolf?

In the media we are constantly bombarded with the “T” word and how we need defending from the imminent danger of religious extremists who just love to commit suicide and kill a random crowd of white people for no apparent reason. And there is a long, long, long line of companies ready to run to our rescue… at a price of course. But what is this impending doom? Somewhere in the region of 2.5 billion people flew in 2009 and only one was dumb enough to put PETN in his pants without realising that you have to explode the substance with a detonator rather than set fire to it. You are thousands of times more likely to be struck by lightning than being directly affected by a transnational terrorist attack,  and yet the security industry continues to grow.

Full-body scanners are just another over priced and unnecessary addition to a nonsensical  patchwork of security measures and a further subtraction of our essential rights. Eventually, I imagine, they will all end up in a landfill site alongside puffer machines and other contraptions that cost a fortune and failed to deliver. By that time many of the exhibitors at TerrorExpo will have made a mint and we will have already been used as Guinea Pigs in a long line of even more intrusive and harmful technology. By then I wonder if anyone will remember what “human rights” means.

Sam Edi

Scrap the Scanners



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