Can Airport Body Scanners Stop Terrorist Attacks?

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Cynthia Boll / AP

A passenger is checked inside a body scanner at the Netherlands' Schiphol airport

It was an inevitable outcome of the failed attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow up a plane over Detroit on Christmas Day: the fact the would-be bomber succeeded in boarding a flight with explosive powder sewn into his underwear has sparked new calls in the U.S. and Europe to dramatically step up security at airports.

Much of the attention in Europe has focused on the installation of full-body scanners, which produce X-ray-like images that can reveal if there are packages concealed beneath a passenger's clothing. Last week, the Netherlands said it would introduce compulsory body scans for all passengers at Dutch airports as soon as possible. Just days later, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown followed suit, announcing that the scanners would also be introduced at airports in the U.K. However, the two countries may be on their own — other European Union members are hesitant to spend the money to install the scanners amid concerns over privacy violations and the effectiveness of the machines.

One of the main criticisms of the scanners, which have already been installed at 19 airports in the U.S., is that they cannot detect low-density materials such as powders, liquids, thin pieces of plastic or anything that resembles skin. Nor can they detect any explosives concealed internally. Some politicians and aviation experts have questioned whether the scanners would have detected the powder that Abdulmutallab carried on board Northwest Flight 253. Ben Wallace, a British Conservative Parliament member who was involved in a defense firm's testing of the technology, said over the weekend that the scanners probably wouldn't have picked up the powder. But proponents of the system disagree. Dutch Interior Minister Guusje ter Horst told a news conference last week that he believed the technology would have worked. "Our view now is that the use of millimeter-wave scanners would certainly have helped detect that he had something on his body, but you can never give 100% guarantees," he said.

Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical intelligence at the global consultancy Stratfor, says that no matter what type of technology is used at airports, creative terrorists will always find ways to get around it. "Look at prison systems, where searches are far more invasive — they still can't stop contraband from being smuggled into the system," he tells TIME. But when it comes to the full-body scanners, Stewart says the bigger concern is that authorities may be diverting scarce security resources away from more proven measures, like training airport staff to detect suspicious behaviors in would-be attackers before they board planes. "We have a tendency to over-rely on technology, especially Americans, instead of human intelligence," he says.

Opponents also argue that the scanners are an invasion of privacy because, in addition to concealed packages, they can also reveal the curves of a person's body on screens viewed by security officers. One British politician, Philip Bradbourn, has likened it to a "virtual strip search." "[The] technology has the potential to turn a legitimate security concern into an unacceptable peepshow for security industries," the Conservative said in 2008.

Some E.U. airports, including Schiphol in Amsterdam and Heathrow in London, already offer passengers the option of walking through a body scanner instead of undergoing a physical pat-down search. But in 2008, when the European Commission suggested devising regulations on the use of scanners in the E.U., European Parliament members voted overwhelmingly in support of a resolution calling the machines an affront to passengers' rights. The Commission has since launched a study on whether the scanners violate people's privacy, but the results have yet to be released.

Even following the attempted attack on the Northwest flight, critics remain resolutely opposed to the machines. "A knee-jerk reaction which sees body scanners, with their known drawbacks of passenger delays and privacy threats, as a magic solution is a bad move," says Sarah Ludford, a British member of the European Parliament. "In the Christmas Day case, as in the 9/11 and 7/7 [London] bombings, the failure was not to join the dots of available information." Advocates of civil liberties agree. Simon Davies, director of the London-based human-rights watchdog Privacy International, describes the scanners as a "fashionable and unproven technology" and an "assault on the essential dignity of passengers that citizens in a free nation should not have to tolerate."

But Stephen Phipson, president of Britain-based Smiths Detection, the world's largest maker of full-body scanners, insists that the machines only produce images that show the outlines of the human body, not anatomical parts. "The privacy concerns are valid," he says. "But our software can blur out parts of the body. And the scanners are far less intrusive than the traditional pat down of the body." At the U.S. airports where scanners have been installed, security officers must look at the images in isolated rooms and are not allowed to have any piece of equipment, such as a camera or mobile phone, that could be used to capture or copy the images.

The scanners are also priced at around $150,000 apiece, making cost a concern as well. Thousands would be needed to outfit all of the airports in Europe, not to mention the added expense of employing the personnel required to operate them. And in contrast to the U.S., where the Federal Government provides funding for airport security, European airports must cover their own security budgets.