Thursday, January 07, 2010

Alberta Privacy Commissioner has some choice words about airport body scanning

The incomparable Frank Work, Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta, appears to have an opinion on body scanning technologies.

Privacy boss pans scans

New naked body security measures at airports don't fly, he says

The thin edge of the wedge -it's not the happiest of analogies when the subject is naked body scans and orifice-probing technology.

But that's the uncomfortable warning from Alberta Privacy Commissioner Frank Work, following a federal decision to install full-body security scanners at major Canadian airports, including Calgary and Edmonton.

Blasting the move as a serious blow to personal privacy and dignity, Work says he expects the obvious flaws in body-scanning security will result in more high-tech "toys" to fill the gaps.

"What will they do next, after the next incident? We're running out of toys and technological silver bullets," said Work, one day after the federal government announced the new airport security measures.

Work guards the privacy of Albertans, be it information or images.

If this was an Alberta rule or an airport decision, Work would surely step in and prevent the visual strip-search.

But being federal legislation, Work fears there is nothing he can do to block the airport scanners, which expose naked images of passengers to the eyes of prying security staff.

"The bottom line is it's a dignity issue, and either out of fear or because we don't want to stand in line too long, we've forsaken any notion of dignity -- it's like, all right, we'll assume the position," said Work.

He's awaiting a call from federal Transport Minister John Baird, but Work believes his hands are tied.

Work said that because human-monitored body scanners aren't perfect, showing only a surface view of the nude passenger, he believes it's a matter of time and/or tragedy before the next step is taken.

"The system is still prone to failure, so let's say the next guy packs his ass with however many grams of (plastic explosive) he can shove up there, and either successfully or unsuccessfully detonates it. What do they do next?" said Work.

"How do they trump full body scans? There actually is a device called the BOSS -- the Body Orifice Security Scanner -- where you sit in a plastic armchair and it can detect plastic or metal in body orifices. Is this next?"

The privacy boss knows his technology, and the chair he references is used in U.S. prisons, in lieu of the old rubber glove approach. That it could easily be installed in airport security areas is a squirmy thought.

Work believes it's just a matter of time.

"At what point do we say, 'Holy crap man, you're patting me down, you've got pictures of me naked, you've got me squatting on a chair, and you've taken my water bottle away'. I mean at what point is enough, enough?"

The federal government is installing 44 of the $250,000 body-scanners across Canada, as well as implementing a new system of visual observation, where security staff will monitor passenger behaviour.

The changes come in response to a Christmas Day attempt to blow up a jetliner over Michigan, when a Nigerian man failed to ignite explosives sewn into his underwear.

While the new body-scanners reportedly wouldn't have caught the underwear bomber -- the explosives were spread too thin -- U.S. demands for extra security have forced countries like Canada to follow suit.

Work says Canada obviously has little choice, if citizens want to travel internationally.

While the U.S. is forcing Canadian travellers to surrender their dignity, Work said the real danger is people starting to believe in safety, purchased through an invasion of privacy.

"The thing that troubles me most as the privacy commissioner, is we're getting more and more used to this stuff.

"Maybe we have to throw in the towel on the body scanners, but the next time the police or authorities come along wanting to blanket the city in cameras for safety reasons, we'll be that much more compliant."


James said...

Nice to see that at least one of our privacy commissioners knows his job is to protect our dignity against all comers, rather than simply to keep our inboxes free of corporate spam. Too bad he's mostly helpless.

Jaimsta said...

While it is relatively easy to deconstruct or critique an idea or notion (anyone can do this), it is more of a challenge to suggest something new or locate alternatives in lieu of what is being criticized. While the Alberta Privacy Commissioner has taken the opportunity to voice his opinion, I could not locate any problem solving or new ideas in his statements. I'm not surprised.