The Underwear Bomber

Airport Body Scanners

On Christmas Day, 2009, a man known as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 253, en route from Amsterdam to Detroit. There he tried (and failed) to light an explosive in his underwear – and to think I was using 'underwear bomber' as a joke all these years. The world took notice of this terrorist attempt, and governments acted accordingly. Since the incident, airports around the world have been introducing full-body scanners, or high-tech imagers that detect objects beneath a person's clothes. The effect of this technology has been likened to a 'virtual strip search.' Governments rushed to implement the technology, but it is not a silver bullet. For all their trouble, the scanners are less than effective, and present an unnecessary and worrying invasion of privacy. Full-body scanners are not the answer to the terrorist threat; a focus on having competent security staff would be much more effective.

Full-body scanners work by using electromagnetic waves to see through clothing and reveal objects concealed on a person's body. The scans can also detect plastic knives and plastic explosives where metal detectors do not. However, a scanner may not be able to see devices hidden in the body's orifices. If drugs can be smuggled in such a way, then is it such a stretch to suggest that dangerous weapons may be hidden in the same fashion? Furthermore, Ben Wallace, a former employee of QinetiQ, a company that produces the body scanning technology, said that the scanners probably would not have stopped the perpetrator of the Christmas Day bombing plot. Nor would they have prevented the London Bombings in 2005, if they were used in train terminals. For all that it's worth – each machine costs about 250,000 dollars – they fail to deliver.

Certainly it is bad enough that these scanners are not guaranteed to make a significant contribution to airport security, but they also invade an innocent individual's privacy. Although the computer image of the scanned passenger has its face blurred, breast augmentations and the genitals are still clearly visible. It is some comfort to know that the officer who reviews the scanned image does not see the passenger, but at the same time, this issue has never been properly debated. Micheal Vonn, a policy director at the BC Civil Liberties Association, also said that the machines have not yet been vetted by independent security experts. The government of this country seems to have made a knee-jerk reaction to the recent terrorism incident, and individual privacy rights are suffering as a result.

Machines have their limits, and it is vital for security staff at airports around the world to do their jobs correctly, especially where technology fails. Machines can only be held responsible for so much, and humans have their own accountability to consider. One instance of human intervention that should have happened but didn't can be found in the Abdulmutallab case. A month prior to the attack, British intelligence officials indicated to the U.S. that Umar Farouk had indirect ties to al-Qaeda. Umar's own father warned the CIA about his son's 'extreme religious views' and consequently his name was added to the U.S.'s Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment. However, his U.S. visa was not revoked. Abdulmutallab was also allowed on the international flight even without a passport. The man practically had 'terrorist' tattooed on his forehead and still no one prevented him from boarding that flight to Detroit.

Full-body scanners give a false sense of security to travelers, and will ultimately do little to enhance the public's security. In this era it's easy to see why we may accept any measure that would seem to keep us safer. Still, how can we accept something that not only proves largely ineffective, but also infringes on our modesty at the same time? Say 'no' to body scanners, and keep your privates private.

A/N: Don't blame me for the 'underwear bomber' jokes. When my dad was looking it over, he inserted that line in the first paragraph without me knowing; I just decided to keep it. And then my teacher gave me the title.

I'm surrounded by comedians . . .

Anyway, yeah, I wrote this for my speech assignment in English 3204 a little while ago. If it seems rushed, it's because we have a pretty restrictive time limit to work with. And also because I wrote it a day before it was due. Oops.

I got an A on it, if anybody cares (where I come from, anything between an 80 and 100 % is an A). I wouldn't even give myself that, but whatever . . .

Would you ever go through a scanner? I obviously wouldn't. A pat-down is more dignified, in my opinion, but that's just me.

More notes:

When I say "The government of this country" I am referring to the government of Canada.

Most of my sources were from Maclean's magazine. They had an issue on body scanners a while back.

. . . I have nothing else to say.