The naked truth: Airport X-ray scanners

The naked truth: Airport X-ray scanners

As controversial, intrusive Backscatter X-rays are phased out in the United States, a trial is coming to Australia: But better technology beckons

x-rayThe new X-ray technology being used in the United States isn't as intrusive as before.Word from the American tarmac says the fun’s over for airport security workers. For years, they’ve been able to undress passengers with their red eyes. But after protests from pilots and the unwillingly undressed, it has been announced this week that the intrusive scanners have been modified.

The controversial scanners were giving a new meaning to X-rays, giving an accurate reading of the entire, uncensored human body. Some of these X-rated, X-ray images even found their way onto the Internet.

But it hasn’t all quite stopped.

While American airport workers can now only see outlines of bodies that identify “hot spots” that could require further investigation, the Australian government –- forever trying to keep up with big brother –- has announced a back-door plan of its own.

Legislation was passed this month that will see full body scanners tucked away in back rooms of undisclosed airports around the country for a 12-month trial, reports Australian Business Traveller.

There’s a few catches: passengers don’t know which airports they’re at. The start date of the program hasn’t been released (although it will be this year). Oh, and the effects on person’s health of the scanners are fairly unknown, too.

The future could be brighter: a new technology trialled in Australia could eventually maintain the privacy and health of air travelers.

Fancy a scan good looking?

The Australian Minister for Home Affairs, Brendan O’Connor, was quick to point out that a 12-month trial in Australia won’t employ the Backscatter X-ray scanners used in America. In Australia, these are only used to scan bottles to make sure there’s something not a little stronger, or more explosive, than booze lurking in them.

They’ll also be optional, and passengers could instead choose an old-fashioned hospital examination if they’re suspected of carrying anything they shouldn't.

“To conduct a body scan, Customs will have to form a reasonable suspicion that a person is carrying drugs internally and the suspect must consent to being scanned,” O’Connor said in a statement.

“The option of an internal body scan will more quickly exonerate the innocent and ensure a minimum of delay for legitimate passengers,” he said.

In the United Kingdom, even more is being monitored: from mobile phone signals to measure the lengths of queues, too the eye’s iris for identification.

Travelers are tired of airport security: a survey by the U.S. Travel Association found that three-quarters of passengers were unhappy with the current state of affairs.

So how about a pat down?

Airport security, led by an American lobby, is well and truly under the microscope. Hillary Clinton, being the U.S. Secretary of State, doesn’t go through security. In Australia, this honor is reserved for the Pope and the Queen, although the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, recently tried to sneak through without a check.

But back to Hillary: she said on national TV that she wouldn’t be keen on a body frisk, anyway. “I mean, who would?”

U.S. pilot associations -- many of whose members go through the process every day -- have led the charge against intrusive scanners and pat downs, deeming them unacceptable.

Well, here’s a dose of radiation

Of particular concern to many pilots and travelers is that Backscatter-scanning technologies haven’t been fully tested for radioactive effects. Health experts have said that, as such, it should be banned from medical practice as adequate research has not been carried out.

But enough fear about anti-terrorism measures and the ongoing war on drugs. There also could be good news in the future.

Sydney and Melbourne airports have trialed a new technology that claims to receive -- rather than transmit -- signals from the body, reports Australian Business Traveller. That is, they aren't X-rays, nor X-rated.

The technology picks up TeraHertz waves, emitted by all people and things, and can therefore decipher whether powder, guns or just plain old chewing gum is in your pocket. They also illuminate spots on your body rather than give naked representations of it.

And, in an era where travelers have been kicking up a fuss about privacy and body frisks, it could be the way of the future.