Their beams can penetrate the thickest clothing, and with a price tag of up to GBP 1,00,000 a go they are not cheap. But, security experts warn that full-body scanners can only ever be one of many weapons in the aviation industry’s ever-evolving battle against terrorists.
Such machines have been tested at Heathrow and Manchester airports but never routinely used in the U.K. Now, on the say-so of Gordon Brown, airports operator BAA says it will install the devices as quickly as it can.
Scanners come in two types
Full-body scanners have been around since the early 1990s. They met resistance from both passengers and officials concerned at the potential indignities involved in a technology which effectively lets staff scrutinise people’s naked form. The scanners come in two types. One method, backscatter x-ray, creates a two-dimensional image, meaning passengers must be scanned from more than one angle. Millimetre wave machines generate a 3D image, but the quality is less sharp.
The scanner manufacturers claim they would detect materials of the sort Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly took on to his Northwest Airlines flight, but experts caution that it would depend on a series of factors, not least the vigilance of the scanner operator.
“It’s one of the big difficulties with airport security,” said Kieran Daly, editor of Flight International magazine. “You’re asking people to do a job which is not only very important and carries a very high risk if there is a failure, but is also exceptionally tedious.” Still more significant is that it would be impossible to scan every passenger on a flight without creating major delays. Both sorts of full-body scanners process between two and three people per minute, little faster than a conventional frisk. “I don’t see how there can ever be universal full body scanning. Apart from the price, it would add enormously to delays,” said Norman Shanks, a former head of security for BAA who now runs his own consultancy.
Far better, he said, would be an integrated system of passenger monitoring and profiling allowing those deemed a potential risk — plus a random number of others — to receive a scan, as well as a cabin-bag check and perhaps a frisk: “What I would like to see happening is an informed security system in which people are under observation from the moment they enter the airport by people trained in behavioural observation. Full body scanning is a tool. It’s not the answer to every security question.” Philip Baum, another aviation security expert, said that while he believed full-body scanners “should have been deployed many, many years ago”, there was a danger of knee-jerk reaction.
Even universal full-body scanning would not eliminate the risk of passengers smuggling a working bomb in sections within their bodies — which tests last year showed was feasible. More powerful machines exist which can scan internally, but the increased radiation involved would most likely cause passenger concerns, he said.
“There is no one answer. The first step of the process should always be the proper use of the human brain: people making an intelligent decision as to which security lane a passenger goes down.”