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Full Body Scanners: Between Hysteria and Denial

In an age of a rising and increasingly dispersed threat of terrorism, the discourse on risks has tended to vacillate between blind denial and hysteria. Since the media debate on the installation of 'full body scan' equipment at airports comes in the wake of a particularly sensational incident - the attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines plane at Detroit on Christmas, which failed because the suicide bomber's detonation device malfunctioned - these conflicting proclivities have reached new levels of stridency.

Advocates of the 'security' perspective see nothing objectionable in 'sacrificing' personal privacy to the imperatives of greater air safety and believe the new machines are an inescapable imperative, exhorting those who are unwilling to submit to invasive scrutiny to 'take a car or a train'. Rights activists, on the other hand, have taken recourse to emotive images of a 'virtual strip search' by what has evocatively been dubbed the 'naked machine', to create the threat of an intolerable invasion of privacy by a technology that would expose 'body shapes and private parts', and that would be susceptible to abuse - particularly in the case of celebrities - notwithstanding any safeguards regulators may impose. One rights activist thus argues, persuasively, "We would certainly all be safer on airlines if we all flew naked." Evidently, that is an option few of us would seriously examine, irrespective of threat assessments.

The 'naked machine' metaphor is certainly far from accurate. The images generated by the 'full body scan' are hardly pictorial depictions that would arouse sexual curiosity in any but the most perverse. Nevertheless, different people have vastly different standards of personal modesty, and one man's digital silhouette may well be another man's pornography. Clearly, the issue cannot be settled on these grounds.

Some concerns have also been articulated regarding the effect of cumulative radiation for frequent fliers, but these are easily addressed by purely technical considerations - one report indicated that an estimated 2,500 full-body scans in a year would be need to exceed the acceptable amount from a single radiation source. Hundreds of scans would total no more than a negligible dose.

The question, consequently, is not just whether the new technology constitutes an invasion of privacy or any increased risks of radiation; it is, rather, whether it will make air travel measurably safer. That is something that remains to be tested and demonstrated.

Terrorists and the agencies charged with counter-terrorism are engaged in an unending contestation, a race to get ahead in strategies and tactics, weapons and technologies. The introduction of a new technology is only another blip on the radar - in the present instance, a particularly expensive blip. It is only a question of time before the terrorists will wrap their heads around this obstacle and find a way to get around it; and a little more time before some new device promises to 'ensure' our safety again.

Before vast quantities of money are spent on installing large numbers of this latest hi-tech toy at Indian airports, consequently, it is necessary to make a realistic appraisal of the degree to which they will make us safer. The marginal utility of a full body scan at airports will be directly in proportion to the efficacy and efficiency of the protocols already in existence. If other elements of the security protocol are at relatively low levels of effectiveness, adding expensive equipment at one end of the process will not significantly alter risks. Tremendous emphasis on training of airport staff is needed, and there are substantial lacunae here, not only in India, but worldwide. One trial in the US in 2006, for instance, in which undercover agents attempted to smuggle unauthorised materials onto a number of flights at different airports, found that they succeeded on as many as 60 percent of their attempts. It is not known whether such mock trials have been attempted by any Indian agency, but most regular air travellers in the country would incline to the opinion that, while security is obstructive and irritating at most Indian airports, it does leave a great deal to be desired in terms of thoroughness.

Various authorities in the West have dismissed public or partisan concerns regarding loss of privacy and confidentiality, as well as other apprehensions regarding the full-body scan. Whether these apprehensions are, in fact, adequately addressed, will depend on regulations, the integrity of processes, the enforcement of norms, and the efficient imposition of exceptionally deterrent penalties for any possible abuse. A recurrent problem with the introduction of new technologies in India has long been that legislation for regulation and the apparatus for enforcement has lagged far behind the pace of technological proliferation. Even where regulations have been introduced, the capacities for enforcement have remained weak and deeply susceptible to manipulation and corruption. The result has been wide residual spaces for abuse. If consumer confidence is to be maintained, these spaces will have to be effectively blocked off by an efficient regulatory mechanism - something that remains far from likely within the Indian context.

As with any new innovation promising benefits, it is necessary to assess the full body scan technology in quantifiable terms within the context of its actual operation. The unfortunate reality is, that context has itself never adequately been evaluated in India. Knee jerk reactions have been the hallmark of Indian responses - and there is no visible reason why anything will change in the case of full body scanners at airports.


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