Full-body scanners cause controversy across the globe

On Dec. 25, 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab stitched an explosive device in his underwear in an attempt to blow up a passenger plane bound for the United States. Although his plan failed, it’s created a wave of hyped security in airports across the globe.

Starting in Amsterdam, where the Christmas Day bomber boarded his plane, the plan for increases in new full-body scanners has started. According to Amsterdam officials, new scanners are already being installed in Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport in an attempt to foil future acts of terrorism. England’s Manchester Airport and Japan’s Narita Airport in Tokyo have already followed suit.

According to the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, the number of $150,000 per-unit full body scanners in airports will triple in the next year alone.

“I realize that that’s a lot of money and it’s a tough economy, but I’m for installing more of these full-body scanners in airports,” said Fairmont German teacher Jennifer Yuker. “I’d be willing to pay a little bit more to fly to cover the cost.”

These expensive new machines use two types of technologies that can produce full body scans, which produces an essentially nude image of the passenger waiting to get onto his or her flight. The first technology is called millimeter wave scanners, which use very high, computer-processed frequency radio waves to produce a detailed 3D image of passengers. The other kind of device is called a Backscatter scanner that uses high energy rays that scatter when they hit materials, thus allowing computers to produce a detailed picture and expose substances such as weapons or explosives.

Intrusion or necessity?

While proponents of these new machines hail them as a necessity in airports all over the world, opponents decry their invasion of the passengers’ privacy and claim that they are unneeded, ineffective and a violation of essential civil liberties.

The TSA is in the process of installing many of these full-body scanners in airports all across the country, adding to the 40 full-body scanners already in use in 19 airports across the country. According to the TSA, the equipment does not show details of the face, and the pictures the machines produce is not of a quality that could be considered compromising. In addition, the TSA has assured airport-goers that the person actually seeing the scans won’t be the one to operate the machine and therefore won’t see the passengers in person.

The TSA’s reassuring words are not comforting to some, however. “I don’t think the TSA has been forthcoming with the American public about the true capability of these devices,” Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said on CNN.com. “If you look at the actual technical specifications and you read the vendor contracts of these full-body scanners, you come to understand that these machines are capable of doing far more than the TSA has let on.”

Other people are worried about these new full-body scanners. Fairmont sophomore Gracie Townsend said her biggest concern was the extra time it would take to go through these full-body scanners. “It’s a hassle more than anything,” she said. “When I go to an airport, I just want to be able to board my plane with a minimal amount of security.”

However, Yuker doesn’t think they’ll slow down airport security too much and isn’t too concerned with the privacy issue. “I have nothing to hide, so scan me. If it’s going to make flying safer, then I don’t care.”

When freedom and security clash

The other question for many people regarding these new full-body scanners is their constitutional status. Many people and organizations, including the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the American Civil Liberties Union, feel the scanners violate Americans’ sacred privacy rights and the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.

“I think that the argument from a Constitutional angle regarding these full-body scanners comes down to what you consider an unreasonable search and seizure,” said Fairmont AP Government and Politics teacher Scott Byer. “As far as people’s issue that these scanners are a violation of their right to privacy, then their own interpretation of the Constitution comes into play.”

Normally, under the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures, government officials can only search someone’s property if they have a warrant signed by a judge; however, there are some exceptions to that rule. “Some searches can be called an administrative search, where officials do not need a warrant to search you. These searches most often happen in schools, courthouses and airports, where the public welfare could be seriously compromised if officials didn’t conduct these searches in some instances,” said Byer. “That doesn’t mean the government has unlimited power in those surroundings, though, either.”

So now, the question is: Is the government overstepping its boundary when it forces people to go through a scanner that essentially takes pictures of their naked bodies? Byer says no.

“First off, people can avoid these searches all together by simply not flying,” he said. “Second, when looking at the Constitutionality of these scanners, you have to look at the Government’s true purpose. In the preamble to the Constitution, our forefathers wrote that they wanted our government to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare. I think that by installing these full body scanners, the government is simply doing their job – not violating our rights.”

The issue of full-body scanners will inevitably continue to be a controversial issue, but until the courts rule on the issue and settle it once and for all, the TSA will continue installing the new technology in airports and people will have to agree to disagree.