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What is the naked truth about security scanners? Full-body scanners, also known as naked scanners, “perv scanners”, or arches have been criticized by civil liberties groups, religious organizations, Interpol and the European Court of Human Rights. These devices are controversial because they see through passengers’ clothes and can produce accurate naked images of the body. Governments say that they are extremely effective in detecting bomb parts and weapons. The critics challenge the effectiveness of the scanners but raise the loudest objections to the privacy risks, claiming that the images are so graphic that they amount to “virtual strip-searching”.

The privacy aspect has triggered a controversy between the US and the EU, with the US claiming to provide more privacy protection measures for air travelers going through scanners than Europe provides. The chief privacy officer at the US Department of Homeland Security, Mary Ann Callahan, pointed out that, unlike Europe, the US embedded privacy protection provisions before rolling the system out. The safeguards include the use of remote human screeners which means that the officer looking at the images is in a separate room and does not actually see the person, in the flesh, who is going through the scanner. Passengers always have the option of a pat-down if they don’t want to be scanned.

In contrast, in UK airports, neither of these alternatives is available and abuses have occurred.  There, the officer looking at the image stands next to the person being scanned. In fact, in one case, a scanner operator was disciplined for making a lewd comment about a female passenger’s body as she passed through the machine. In another instance, an actor claimed that his naked image was reprinted and circulated by female security officials who wanted his autograph.  At Manchester Airport, some staff members were accused of creating indecent images of children which violated child pornography laws.  The trial of the scanners in Manchester also revealed that genitalia and breast enlargements were visible, to the great embarrassment of the travelers.

Currently, each EU member state sets its own rules. In the Netherlands, at Schipol Airport, they protect the identity of the travelers by having a stick figure or a mannequin instead of the real image of the person, with a light flashing in the specific body area which requires closer scrutiny.

According to this blogger, harmonization of minimum privacy safeguards along the path staked out by the Netherlands and the US is in order, and the European Commission agrees with me. The Commission, in a report to the European Parliament and Council, issued June 15, 2010, calls for common EU standards in order to ensure an equal level of protection for all European citizens by guaranteeing uniform application of security rules and standards throughout EU airports. That’s good news for children, actors, those with cosmetic surgery on their private parts, and all other travelers.