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Your Rights 1 – Mind the Scanners.

September 26, 2010

Dear mum

In a few days you are off on another adventure with my aunt around the world. Two middle-aged girls (stereo-typical terrorists) travelling around to meet up with old friends, see the sights and savour all the joys of the latest security procedures in airport departure lounges. As you are already aware from your numerous travels, you are far safer flying transatlantic than you are walking down the street because international terrorist attacks are thousands of times less common than lightning strikes. But this year, you will see, that Terror Fever has reached new lows. Some of the places you are visiting (all the places least prone to terrorist attacks) have decided to adopt ridiculously over-the-top security measures, while other places in the world, such as countries of the Middle-East, have seen through the falsehood that is the body scanner and rejected the lobbyists’ offers.

Leering from a darkened booth.

You’ll be starting off from Heathrow, London. You may well be selected for a scan in the Rapiscan Secure 1000 backscatter x-ray scanner, in which your naked body will be viewed by a security guard sitting in a room with a radio connection to the security guards in the Departure lounge entrance. They will be looking for explosives. Guns and knives will have already been eliminated from the search list as you will have already passed through the metal detector arch. Of course you do not look like a potential suicide terrorist, but as you already know, rational thought is beyond the little Hitlers of airport security. You will also be quized on other privacy-right violating questions, such as what your racial background is, what your political beliefs are and what your religion is. You see there is the paradox – the selection process for scanning is supposed to be completely random, but after being ‘randomly selected’ your profile is recorded and lifestyle documented. Why, if you do not match their mysterious profile, you are still required to be irradiated in the scanner is a mystery to me and all other sane people.

You will also be glad to hear that if you feel uncomfortable with the idea of a male security guard leering at your naked body on a screen in his own dark little private booth, you are generously granted the right to request a female security guard to ogle you instead. There are, however, no effective systems to monitor that this request is actually being granted, but hey, imagining that government departments like the DfT are doing their job will do you fine – sticking their heads in the ground when being attacked by lions apparently works for ostriches too!

You do, of course, have the right to refuse the scan, but you must understand that you will then be refused the right to fly. In fact, what will happen if you refuse is that you will be led away to private room where you will be held against your will for several hours and interrogated. Once the interrogation is over they will have established that you are not, of course, a suicide terrorist and that you do not have illegal objects hidden beneath your clothing. When the little-Hitlers have finished with you and established that you are not in any way shape or form a danger to national or air security, you still will not be allowed to fly. Why? There’s no logical reason other than you are being punished for questioning the word of authority.

So I fully understand why you or anyone else would accept being scanned. Flying is not the same as getting on a bus (which incidentally holds a far greater statistically-based risk of terrorist attacks). It demands a much greater investment, both economic and emotional. You could be going on holiday and spending between 5 – 15% of your annual earnings on a well deserved rest you have waited over 11 months for, or you could be off to visit loved ones who live far away, or travelling to an essential meeting for work, etc. All of these reasons to travel require an investment that has to be weighed up against your essential human rights being eroded chip by chip. Most would risk the scanner, its health risks and its human rights violations during a few seconds rather than lose all investment in that flight. More than 1/4 million have done so far through Heathrow. That does not make the violations any less offensive though.

The establishment chooses its own opposition

So, I wonder why Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, the most applauded civil liberties campaign group in the UK, decided it appropriate to be scanned at Heathrow on her way to Belfast. Here is a person who has received accolade after accolade for her “work” on human rights. On the topic of airport body scanners – what must be the greatest violation of human rights on British soil in recent history – Chakrabarti has said nothing. In fact, being paid what she is being paid and travelling on Liberty expenses, she had less obligation to pass through the scanner than most. All she had to do was say ‘no’ and then seek one of the many alternatives . But by accepting to be scanned she did the opposite of what she has been applauded for – she endorsed human rights abuses. She endorsed the scanners.

Under most constitutions of the world, compulsory strip-searches without demonstrable suspicion would be illegal, but the UK’s constitution is impossible to interpret with any objectivity, so essentially you have no rights.

Once you have managed to board your flight you can look forward to visiting all of those countries where the word ‘constitution’ still means something. Well, ‘something’ is better than nothing, right?

The United States is going to bring just as much fun to your holiday. You will have the pleasure of meeting with the ever so polite TSA agents. Now, they really, really want you try out their new gadgets. In fact you may find them a little pushy. To the point where they completely forget that in the USA you legally have the right to refuse the scan and still take your flight. If you do forego the scan, you’ll have to take the frisky ‘pat down’ instead. Some TSA agents will forget that you have an option at all. You’ll have to stand your ground though. They will try to push the idea of being strip-searched in a scanner as the most normal thing in the world and anyone who refuses must then be ‘abnormal’.

But don’t worry, you won’t be alone. Everyone gets the same treatment, even the pilots! I mean, you can imagine the threat that airline pilots pose. They might sneak in a weapon and hijack their own planes! The same plane they were flying originally!

Is any of this making sense?

What right?

So, it’s time we cut to the chase. What kind of rights are we discussing here? Well… right to privacy, dignity, protection from degrading treatment, right to practice the religion of your choice, protection from arbitrary detention, and those kind of things… Ms. Chakrabarti.

Our rights are our freedoms. Without rights we are slaves. We do not need a self-appointed governmental body to validate or grant us rights by signing a paper. Our rights and our understanding of them are what we have passed down, generation to generation, from pre-history. Our rights are a priori in anything we consider society. They are ours and not for qualifying, interpreting, rescinding or granting by anyone who considers themself empowered to do so. Nonetheless, if you wish to quote a few politically recognised rights that are violated by body scanner use, just pick some from the table below.

UDHR EUCHR HRA
Degrading treatment Art. 3 Art. 1, Art. 4
Arbitrary detention Art. 9
Arbitrary interference with privacy Art. 12 Art. 7, Art.8 Art. 8
Right to leave a country Art. 13 Art. 45
Freedom of religion Art. 18 Art. 10 Art. 9
UDHR – (UN) Universal Declaration on Human Rights
EUCHR – European Union Charter on Fundamental Human Rights
HRA – (UK) Human Rights Act 1998

Degrading treatment: Most constitutions and rights declarations put this close to the top of the list. In fact protecting human dignity was at the forefront of the creation of the EUCHR. Arbitrary detention: I included this since the two women who refused to undergo the scan at Manchester airport were held for questioning. Arbitrary interference with privacy: What could be more private than the image of the naked human body. Most people have few qualms with exposing themselves with clothes and few would worry about sharing images of themselves below the skin. But it is the skin below our clothes that culturally we have grown to consider our most intimate image. Right to leave a country: If a person is refused the right to fly from a UK airport for turning down the scan, then how could an Australian, for example, practically return home? Freedom of religion: Exercising modesty forms an integral part of many religions and cultures, not only Islam. By forcing a person to give up their modesty would have the same effect as forcing a Jew to eat bacon and undermine their right to practice the teachings of their religion.

Martin Schenin, the UN special rapporteur on the protection of human rights said that while countering extremism scanners were both an ineffective means of prevention and an excessive intrusion into individual privacy.

“The use of a full-body scanner which reveals graphic details of the human body, including the most private parts of it, very easily is a violation of human rights. It would be a violation of human rights in respect to everyone, but there are particular sensitivities in respect of women, certain religions, certain cultural backgrounds.”

Inadequacies in security staff training and vetting, as highlighted in the recent case of a Heathrow airport security guard who it is claimed “ogled” a fellow security officer after scanning her body without her consent, would inevitably give rise to breaches in Article 3 of the UK Human Rights Act. It was clearly a degrading act and affected the dignity of the woman scanned. How many passengers have been leered and jeered at through the scanners?

The Fiqh Council of North America issued a religious ruling in February 2010 that says that going through the scanners would violate Islamic rules on Modesty.

“It is a violation of clear Islamic teachings that men or women be seen naked by other men and women. Islam highly emphasises haya (modesty) and considers it part of faith. The Quran has commanded the believers, both men and women, to cover their private parts.”

Massoud Shadjareh, chairman of the islamic Human Rights Commission in London, stated that the body scanner process at airports was “totally unacceptable and what is worse, doesn’t make any security sense.”

Agudath Israel, Orthodox Jewish umbrella group, called body scanner processes “offensive, demeaning and far short of acceptable norms of modesty” within Judaism and other faiths.

In February 2010, Pope Benedict XVIspoke out against scanners on the grounds that they failed to preserve the integrity of individuals.

In the UK and US children are not exempt from body scanning at airports. In London, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission wrote to the former Home Secretary Alan Johnson warning him that body scanners are likely to have a negative impact on privacy, especially for the disabled, elderly, children and transgender people.

Terri Dowty, of Action for Rights of Children, has said that the scanners could breach the Protection of Children Act 1978, under which it is illegal to create an indecent image or a pseudo-image of a child. Therefore if a complaint is made by a parent or guardian of a child who has been scanned, the UK government could face the charge of having committed a criminal offence in obliging children to pass through the scanning process and subsequently producing an indecent and naked image of that child.

In recent months doubts over what exactly adequate training and vetting of security screening staff would involve and of if it could in fact be achieved, were once again brought into question in the US with clear cases of breaches in the UDHR. In March, a Transport Security Agency (TSA) employee was reported to have been mocked after a fellow worker had viewed an image of his naked body through a scanner they were using at that airport. In February of this year US journalist Sandra Fish had to suffer a strip search following a body scan because the TSA agent that viewed her naked image could not distinguish between a breast prosthesis and an explosive. The same journalist tells of an acquaintance who suffered similar humiliation at the hands of the TSA due to his colostomy bag.

Over the last 10 years the Western world has seen a subtle, yet persistent chipping away of its essential rights. This erosion has been quiet enough and well managed enough to slip under the radar. It has been helped along by the look-the-other-way policies of the mainstream press, and the highly suspect inactivity of career campaigners, such as Shami Chakrabarti. Earlier this year the world’s governments chipped off a big chunk of our rights with one strike when they announced their massive roll-out of full-body scanners at airports. We barely batted an eyelid. Because of that, I can guarantee you that the next so-called security measure to be forced on us will be far more intrusive and dangerous.

Enjoy your trip. Don’t forget to send us a postcard.

Sam Edi

…to be continued.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Janet Botham permalink
    September 26, 2010 8:34 am

    Dear Son

    Thanks for the good wishes for mine and your Aunts probably last holiday, her health deteriorates almost daily now.
    I have my nearly matching undies ready to strip down to in my efforts to stay out of these cancer producing screens. But as of last year I maybe battling with the morons who want your Aunt to go in the machine with her state of the art pacemaker to kill her at the airport.. I never did find out if she is allowed to stay in the wheelchair while being scanned.
    If we survive the airports we will have a great holiday and shall certainly send a postcard or two.

    Love Mum

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