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Last Updated : Jun 22, 2019 08:03 PM IST | Source:

Full-body scanners at airports: Privacy aspect must not be given short shrift

The trial of full-body scanners at UK's Manchester airport, revealed naked images of passengers, including their genitalia and breast enlargements.

Jocelyn Fernandes @scribeJocelyn

Political and media discourses around the globe have increasingly centred on security concerns, be it of the physical or virtual kind. India too is not immune to these issues.

In June, the government mandated 84 airports across India -- of which 26 are classified as hyper-sensitive and 58 as sensitive -- to install full-body scanners within a year's time. Other airports in the country have been given time until March 2020 to replace metal detectors.

These full-body scanners would screen 300 passengers per hour for eight seconds each, according to a circular issued by the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS) in April.


The Mumbai International Airport (MIAL) had called for expression of interest (EoI) in May from original equipment makers (OEMs) for the supply of the scanners.

Major issues

Interestingly, India's plan to install full-body scanners across all airports in the country is unique. Across the world, the devices are used as a secondary screening process and passengers can choose between walking past a body scanner or a pat-down. The US, which was among the early adopters of this technology, had around 793 such devices at select airports, until 2016.

Passengers being subject to thorough security procedures is a long-standing staple in air travel. This became more stringent after the 9/11 terror attack in the US. The rigmarole is globally justified as a necessary measure. As it stands it is thus advisable to avoid wearing and/or carrying objects that could be flagged as potential threats by metal detectors and scanners.

Once installed, the full-body scanners would require passengers to remove shoes, belts, jackets, thick clothes, and metallic items from their person. The circular further stated that 10 percent of all passengers, at random, would have to comply with full pat-down searches. Full-body scanners are preferred as they detect metallic and non-metallic threats.

While global precedence resulted in the BCAS stipulated filters to mollify naysayers, some of the major issues that arise from the use of body scanners are possible health hazards, the threat to data privacy, infringement on the right to religion and possibility of discrimination.

Health hazards

In January 2019, the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), which oversaw the full-body scanner trials at Indira Gandhi International Airport (IGIA) in New Delhi, expressed health concerns over the effect of X-rays, India Today had reported. Already, as per global procedures, heart patients and people with pacemakers are frisked separately.

As per earlier trials, two types of body scanners were to be installed – millimetre-wave and backscatter X-ray. However, the April circular mandates that equipment at Indian airports will use millimetre wave technology comprising non-ionising electromagnetic radiation. This removed the risk of exposure to harmful X-rays.

On the other hand, the argument is that backscatter X-ray devices posed minimal risk. As per a Harvard Medical School study, radiation experienced during a flight is far more than what one is exposed to even under backscatter X-ray body scanners, rendering the health argument moot.

Data privacy and religion

Privacy concerns went global after a year-long trial at UK's Manchester airport in 2010 revealed naked images of passengers, including their genitalia and breast enlargements. Airport staff pointed out that the images were completely anonymous and deleted immediately after checks and could not be stored.

However, there were concerns about indecent images of children and lack of safeguards against child pornography violations by airport security staff, The Guardian reported. Thus, a further trial was given the go ahead only after those under 18 years of age were exempted from it.

There were concerns about images of celebrities making their way to the internet. There were also concerns raised by Orthodox Jews and Muslims regarding the full-body image mapping, as it contradicts with their religious tenets. The fear of religious rights being infringed upon was especially high among Muslim women after the Manchester trials.

The Indian government has been proactive and the new circular deals with privacy concerns. The millimetre-wave scanners only produce a non-graphic and generic outline, similar to a 3D model – irrespective of gender, with yellow highlights to indicate if further screening is required. This is a good move to ensure privacy.

There would however have to be clearer guidelines addressing the data storage and image printing concerns.


Many Bollywood actors such as Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan have long complained about being unnecessarily detained at US and UK airports due to their name and religion.

In fact, Shah Rukh came under fire for his allegedly embellished story while promoting My Name is Khan where he claimed that female staff at London’s Heathrow airport had printed out his graphic full-body scan, which he returned to them autographed. The claim was challenged by British Airways Authority (BAA). A BAA spokeswoman told The Telegraph that the machine cannot print images.

Embellishing aside, social media is rife with accounts of black, brown, Muslim, Arab, and Arab-looking or sounding passengers being detained due to suspicions that arose purely out of the pre-conceived biases of airport staff.

There is a need for appropriate measures to ensure that such implicit bias does not creep into the "random" pat-downs that passengers would be subjected to.

Just or not

After multiple demands by advocacy groups against the equipment in 2016, the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) defended the use of full-body scanners, USA Today reported. TSA was allowed to continue using the scanners by an appeals court if they could legally justify it.

The consequent 157-page report by the administration stated that the devices provided the most effective and least intrusive way to search travellers, and added another layer of security especially against weapons that go undetected by metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs.

However, given that the screening is a secondary process in the US, the situation differs from India, which is looking at the technology to completely replace metal detectors. Cost-effectiveness is the other red flag raised by those in opposition.

While the Indian government has claimed national security as the main trigger for the move, the Ministry of Civil Aviation must be detailed on the use and implementation of full-body scanners. There is precedence set by the European Union and the problems would have to be addressed and solved in a democratic manner.

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First Published on Jun 22, 2019 11:17 am
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