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Airport Body Scanners, Political Drudge and the Backscatter Timebomb

July 21, 2013

Ever since Steven Smith took out the first patent on a full-body scanner back in 1997 the device has occupied a legal and political limbo, a grey zone where law makers really don’t know what to do with it or know what it means for society.

Why have these backscatter scanners really been retired?

Why have these backscatter scanners really been retired?

Smith’s original intention for the scanner was to sell it to high-security centres such as prisons, diamond mines and military instalations, but no one was interested. Pre-9/11, Rapiscan, branch of OSI systems, was competing in a highly competitive security equipment environment and was searching for a flagship product that they would market to airports and that would give it the edge it needed to survive. But not even 9/11, nor the attempts of the bumbling Shoe Bomber, proved enough to politically bypass both health and privacy fears. The product was good, by far the best below-clothing imaging device ever to come onto the market, but politicians and airport owners alike all prefered to err on the side of caution.

In 2003 Rapiscan met its first real competitor in the form of the L3 Millimeter Wave scanner. L3, born of ex-Lehman Brothers and Lockheed Martin chiefs, already had the lobbying muscle and managed to persuade UK transport police to trial their product at London rail hubs. Their scanner was nowhere near as efficient as the original Rapiscan device and it was considerably more expensive, but L3 had the contacts and OSI Systems was gradually being dragged down by Rapiscan’s failure to compete against the newcomers.

By 2009, Terror Fever, sparked by the September 2001 televised terror spectacular, was beginning to lose airtime on the BBC and CNN and airports could no longer see the impetus to install such invasive technology without the green light from their governments. Heathrow and Manchester airports had tentetively agreed to run trials with the Rapiscan scanner, but no one else. They, like everyone, awaited some sort of political seal of approval. In Europe, the European Commission’s Siim Kallas attempted to push legislation through the Parliament, but lack of knowledge about the scanners, both for and against, failed to achieve the votes necessary. The scanners remained in limbo while OSI Systems’ share price plummeted. So, Rapiscan met with the Chertoff group, headed by Patriot Act author Michael Chertoff, and comprised mostly of ex-CIA heads. It was an act of desperation on Rapiscan’s part and akin to having a sit-down with protection racketeering Mafia bosses (read more).

Then, the underwear bomber changed everything.

Siim Kallas – Political drudge and shuffling goon

Unelelected overseer of European Union Transport policy, Siim Kallas has remained the central keyholder to the scanners’ political limbo. European opinion on the subject has been fundamental to both for and against camps in the body scanner argument. Even the US has waited baited breath to see if the old continent would approve the technology. Post underwear bomber incident, Secretary of DHS Janet Napolitano finally decided to bypass the European Commission and got together personally with EU ministers at two meetings held in Spain in early 2010. The then Spanish minister of Infrastructure, José Blanco who had originally refused to adopt a scanner policy, said that scanner implementation would be “inevitable”.

Kallas and the EU continued to dither. Common rules were demanded and after dragging his heels for a year and half, the commissioner finally put through his long awaited standards on scanner use. He did so slyly when MEPs were leaving for their summer holidays using the Comitology process in which MEPs can only vote against a Commission bill. In their vacational absence, few did.

The new legislation outlawed Rapiscan’s backscatter xray scanner on health fears and demanded alternative screening methods for those not wanting to pass through the scanners. However, it was not until late 2011 when the legislation finally came into effect until Kallas called on SCENHIR, one of the EC’s health risk assessment teams, to verify his claims against backscatter technology as a health risk, something they too failed to confirm either way.

By mid 2011, Manchester airport in the UK already had already overconfidently invested in a total of 19 of the Rapiscan scanners while Heathrow’s backscatter scanners were coming to the end of their 5-year useful life. With the new legislation in place, Heathrow decided to replace their old Rape n’ Scam scanners with the L3 model which evaded health-risk evaluation through a technicality of the classification of the type of energy it uses. The UK Secretary of State for Transport, eager to defend Manchester’s investment, met in private with Siim Kallas just days before the new legislation came into effect. Kallas subsequently signed off an agreement to exempt Manchester from the EU ban for another year. I wonder what was said at that meeting to change the Commissioner’s mind.

Since then, Kallas has continuously failed to answer parliamentary questions on scanner policy and his turning a blind eye to the UK government’s flouting of EU law.

Inconsistency and total lack of coherent policy at the UK Department of Transport

In 2012, when Manchester was finally forced to get rid of its 19 backscatter scanner investment citing the new EU rules, they only replaced them with 3 millimetre wave scanners. Why so few after lauding the importance of scanning with 19 Rapiscan scanners before? Could the purchase of the new scanners simply have been a token gesture?

After totally ignoring the results of a public consultation which showed an 80% rejection of the UK’s body scanning Code of Practice, ex-Secretary of State for Transport, Justine Greening, ploughed ahead with her plan to install scanners at even more UK airports. Stansted, Glasgow, Edinburgh, London City and Birmingham were among airports apparently forced by the DfT to initiate scanner trials. But with only one scanner at Stansted compared to the 19 that Manchester had, consistency in policy remains strangely lacking. Stranger still is how London Luton airport, the UK’s 5th busiest airport still evades scanner installation.

This apparent lack of consistency begs the question of whether the UK government has any type of real policy regarding anti-terrorism measures.

One consistent aspect of British body scanner use is the no scan / no fly policy. Flouting EU legislation which demands an alternative screening method for passengers who wish to opt out, the UK remains the only country in the EU prepared to break European law and force both adults and children through the scanner, blackmailing passengers with the threat of losing their flight. Commissioner Kallas remains silent on the issue in spite of continued demands by MEPs to explain his silence. Is he complicit or is he incompetent? Only time will tell.

Napolitano bows out while the backscatter timebomb keeps ticking.

Right from the start, Janet Napolitano, head of the US Department of Homeland Security, has been the biggest fan of full-body scanning, overseeing the installation of hundreds of the devices at all US airports. In late 2012, the TSA quietly admitted that they were to scrap their multi-million dollar investment in Rapiscan’s xray backscatter scanners in favour of L3’s model which now came with “privacy-enhanced’ software that Rapiscan had been unable to develop. But L3’s software had been proven to be duff on countless occassions by the DHS’s own agents who, during tests, had been able to easily evade detection of their hand guns through the scanners. Something was amiss.

More recently, and to the total surprise of most in government, Napolitano has announced her plan to resign her post at the DHS in favour of a university job.

The EU’s rejection of backscatter scanners had been due to health fears as well as the UK’s reason for respecting only this part of the EU’s new rules on scanners. Could Napolitano, Kallas and the UK’s Department for Transport be sitting on information about the backscatter scanners? Could they all be preparing for a coming storm – one related to health fears that Kallas cited in spite of SCENHIR’s assurances?

[**update** Reports are emerging that Janet Napolitano has just been accosted at the hands of her own TSA agents. Well, it put a smile on my face!]

Watch this space and watch those cancer figures. I smell a news story is in the post.


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