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Full-body scanners spark concerns

Security and health concerns over the use of full-body scanners in detecting terrorist threats have been raised following Gordon Brown’s decision to roll out the technology across Britain’s airports.

The prime minister said that passengers would see the ‘gradual’ introduction of the scanners for flights in and out of the UK, alongside the use of metal detectors and hand-luggage checks, as part of a heightened security screening process.

The move comes in the wake of the failed Christmas Day attack on a transatlantic passenger flight to Detroit and is due to be followed by a European Commission meeting on whether to approve the use of the machines throughout the European Union.

Following Brown’s announcement, BAA, which operates six airports in the UK, said that the full-body scanners will be introduced as soon as is practical. Heathrow is expected to be the first to receive the new technology, which is scheduled for installation within the next few weeks. 

It is understood that Smiths Detection has already received an order from BAA for its Eqo scanner, which works by bouncing millimetre waves onto a person from a 2m-high panel. The variations in reflection generate a 3D image that the company claims can reveal any kind of hidden material threat.

However, speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme, Ben Wallace, Tory MP and former employee of security group Qinetiq, warned that the millimetre-wave technology would probably not have picked up the low-density explosives used in the foiled Christmas Day attack and that any such technology should be used as part of a layered approach.

An alternative system has been produced by US-based group Rapiscan. The system uses X-ray reflections that bounce off a person’s skin to produce 3D full-body images. Based on backscatter technology, the system is able to see an image of the person 0.5mm below the surface of their skin and takes in the region of 7-8 seconds to produce a full-body analysis.

Terry Whittock, vice-president of sales at Rapiscan, said: ‘Millimetre-wave scanners, from our experience and understanding, are in some way lacking when it comes to aviation security. Our backscatter machine was designed purely for the kind of threat that was discovered a week and a half ago… Although we haven’t tested the exact material used, we have full confidence that it will be able to detect it.’

While the company claims that backscatter technology improves the quality of images, the detection rate and health concerns over the frequent use of X-rays on passengers is still under contention by academics throughout Europe.

Prof Chris Mayhew from Birmingham University believes that the government should take a chemical approach to address these concerns. His team is currently working on a scanner based on soft chemical ionisation that he claims will be able to detect low-density explosives without posing any health risks to passengers.

‘The only way you’re going to detect explosives unambiguously is to use some kind of chemical sensor,’ said Mayhew. ‘We are working on a standalone instrument that uses PTR-MS [proton transfer reaction time-of-flight mass spectrometry] to do this… We believe this could be a better way to go.’

PTR-MS works by using charged molecules of water (H3O+) that donate their proton to the explosive agent on contact. Once the agent is ionised, its mass increases by one atomic unit and can be highlighted as a threat. According to Mayhew, the system can detect very small traces of explosives that can’t be seen by the human eye.

‘I think Gordon Brown’s announcement was a knee-jerk reaction,’ he said. ‘There are still concerns over the effectiveness and safety of full-body scanners and some sort of discussion should be had before they are put into all airports.’

Readers' comments (8)

  • This level of detection technology is heading in the right direction. Until it is actually advanced enough to 'reduce' security processing time it is some way from turning the corner against defeating terrorists. Research should be supported to accelerate the technology. The ultimate 'system' would have 100% detection of weapons, explosive devises, homing devises, listed suspects and be able to identify malicious human intent. The ultimate scenario would be world peace!

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  • Detection of explosives has the backing of every air traveller, but the technique for detection requires more work. A chemical sensor is more sensitive and less intrusive. I do not like the intrusive nature of mm or X-ray scanners. How safe are these with regard to human health? Secondly, the time taken for all this scanning is making air travel less efficient, more people are resorting back to driving, ferries or the chunnel as they are as quick and more relaxing than the cattle herding that accompanies airport security. Air travel still wins for long haul, but airports need to work hard at making the process of parking your car to boarding the aircraft a lot more relaxing.

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  • I have to agree with Kerry Green's comments. I recently had to make a journey to the North of England. The flight took a little more than one hour. However, when I added the time taken to drive to the airport, park, check-in, and then trundle through the maze of security gates before spending a second mortgage in the departure lounge and eventually boarding the plane, I worked out it would have taken me around 30 mins less if I had travlled the full journey by car (even quicker by train). Security is essential but we need to be putting in long term research and plans to make it workable and keep flying a quicker and more relaxing alternative!!

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  • I recently travelled through Amsterdam Airport on a journey from Manchester to Beijing. Everybody had to go through a new scanner in each direction that was described as a full body scanner. It was a circular booth.
    Presumably the would-be suicide bomber had to go through this also. Does anybody know anything about this. If he did go through, clearly it did not work.
    However the bottle of single malt Scotch whiskey bought and sealed - complete with Beijing Airport receipts - was found and confiscated. Are the priorities right?

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  • Anything to nail the terrorists and would-be terrorists. They have the 'luxury' of planning ahead - we always have to catch up, so any measures that give us advanced intelligence or active counter measures are OK. For the do-gooders I can only say that if you run with the terror propagators, you must be prepared to suffer when you are caught! So don't come the 'human rights' ploy! Think and behave responsibly in civilised society!

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  • This smacks of political posturing and PR, and from a Government who have failed miserably on the immigration issue and are desperate.
    Success of these units is at best spurious, and at worst contravenes a considerable amount of current legislation ranging from various sex offender and paedophilia legislation through to many Human Rights laws. This leaves an important question, why are such units with so many problems even being considered when there is a considerable, potential backlash from many factions, and a possibility of long term health risks for regular travellers.

    The answer is simple, invest in UK engineering; we can resolve the problems, and for considerably less than the cost of one of the possible taxpayer funded legal challenges, of which there may be many. Once it has been developed, we export it, recoup the initial investment, and make a profit for the UK as well as demonstrate the potential of UK engineering.

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  • "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." - Benjamin Franklin.

    How many terrorists and would-be terrorists have been caught by the increased airport security checks? None. And there is no guarantee that the backscanners would have picked up the underwear bomber anyway.

    So now we have to endure these scanners, not get out of our seats an hour before landing (because that's supposedly when terrorists like to set themselves off - what?), take off our shoes, etc. Do any of these new security measures actually make any sense? They just seem to be more and more invasive and increase the delays.

    Associating "do-gooders" with terrorists is not only ill-informed, it is insulting to those who would like to preserve individual freedoms. Freedoms that many have died for.

    Fear has been used to diminish our freedoms and our privacy, and used as a basis to wage wars. This should be obvious to everyone, and those who argue that we need it to be safe, I direct you to Ben Franklin's quote above.

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  • It always surprises me how quick a few are (and I will say a vocal few) at wanting to ram new technology down our throats and force us to believe it is for our own good. In doing so they care not about the legality of what they do nor are that concerned about sweeping aside our rights in the process of making money.
    They use illogical arguments like the right to life as opposed to the right to privacy - and I agree re the right to life, but to fly is NOT a right but a choice.
    Full Body Scanners are neither necessary nor are they able to prevent terrorist attacks. Even the security experts admit this. So why do we have them. Apart from the fact that as long as civilians are "manning" them they are illegal searches. (Civilains are NOT permitted in law to carry strip searches of any kind and even less so under threats. This is an illegal practice)
    Even if there were a justification for the use of Full Body Scanners there is NO justification for the choice of software used. This choice sees heads of security at airports Choosing the MOST invasive form of software while the less invasive forms protect the privacy of the individual while NOT compromising the secuirty of the flight.
    I really do look forward to the first court cases against BAA and the government in this regard both in the UK courts nad the European Courts of Human Rights

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