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Issue #1443      17 February 2010

Dangers of full body scanners

In December federal Transport Minister Anthony Albanese announced an easing of restrictions on items that can be carried into planes, such as nail clippers and knitting needles. It seemed that common sense was returning to handling security at airports. But then the so called underpants bomber was detained in the USA and the “emerging terrorist threat” is again with us.

As a result, full body scanners have become the latest methods, which are to be introduced in major Australian airports. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced the government would spend $200 million over four years to boost security at Australian airports.

It will be hard to find anybody who would question proper and adequate security measures. But, aside from the invasion of privacy, it is also clear that very often security measures and real or imaginary threats are being used to limit the civil rights of citizens. Governments are using security threats as a political instrument. It is similar to the law-and-order beat up in the lead up to this year’s federal election.

The full body scanner technology is to be introduced by 2011. There are a number of questions about the actual efficiency of the scanners and the health risks that may follow from their use.

There are two types of scanners – passive millimetre scanners and X-ray scanners.

With the first type emitted millimetre waves are reflected back from the body. The reflected waves create a 3D image. The scanner detects high-density objects like knives, guns, etc and dense plastics such as C4 explosive. The waves pass through low-density objects such as clothing or organic material. Thus the scanner creates a “naked” image.

X-ray scanners generate a D image which is sharper than the 3D images generated by passive millimetre scanners.

Health concerns

X-ray scanners cannot be used on pregnant women. In addition you are supposed to give consent if accumulated radiation levels are an issue, and for x-ray scanners this is definitely the case.

Passive millimetre scanners are thought to be safer but some specialists raise the possibility of long-term damage caused at a cell level. Nobody knows for sure yet – but we all remember how wonderful and useful asbestos was.

Both types of scanners are classified as security units – in effect they are medical instruments which can cause a lot of damage if not used properly. Security personnel at airports are not trained medical people. They are private contractors who are not responsible for anything if the worst comes to the worst.

The people who stand to gain commercially are the manufacturers and airport security firms.

Scanners are very expensive and the money would be better spent on intelligence and publicly accountable, government-employed security personnel.

Next article –  Give us the land back, no leases! Justice not Racism!

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