News that airport regulators on both sides of the Atlantic plan to roll out full-body scanners in response to the failed Detroit attack has provoked a predictable backlash among the flying public, with many commentators voicing deep scepticism about the motive for such a move.
On the Politics channel of news-sharing website Reddit, the most popular comment submitted by a user stated simply that "The terrorists won," summing up the sentiments of many citizens who have seen their civil liberties slowly eroded by the deeply unpopular War on Terror.
Other users dared to suggest that the timing of the Detroit attack was just too coincidental, coming at a time when privacy groups have been up in arms over ongoing tests of the so-called 'naked scanners'. Could the US authorities have orchestrated the whole thing just to scare us into submission?
I have been an aviation journalist for the past two years, and have written extensively about terrorism on my blog for the past year. In this Q&A, I will combine the experience I've gleaned from those two professions in presenting the cold hard facts – without bias – about full-body scanners.
Isn't the timing of Detroit a little coincidental?
Though it may seem that way, the honest answer is 'no'. Full-body scanners were trialled at Heathrow Airport between 2004 and 2008, with a new round of tests kicking off at Manchester Airport last October. They were also already being rolled out in the US, with some 40 machines in place at 19 airports including New York JFK and Los Angeles LAX prior to Detroit.
What's more, sceptics should question what exactly authorities have to gain from staging a hoax in order to spur support for these scanners. The simple fact is that the CIA isn't interested in seeing your private parts – it has far bigger fish to fry (no offence). Indeed at £100,000 ($162,000) a pop, these machines are actually a very unwelcome burden on the airline industry, which already lost £6.8 billion ($11 billion) last year due to the recession.
Is it true these scanners aren't completely effective?
As with any form of airport security, this is sadly true. Millimeter wave scanners are only able to penetrate clothing, which leaves open the very real prospect of explosive devices being concealed internally / under the skin, or indeed even simply wedged neatly into certain body orifices.
In fact that is precisely what Al Qaeda operative Abdullah Asieri did when he smuggled a device onto the private jet of Saudi Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef in August, coming within a whisker of killing him. No-one in the airline industry will suggest these scanners are foolproof – they're simply not.
So what's the point in them then?
The point is that they offer a valuable extra layer of security which – and it is important not to sensationalise this statement, nor to couch it in right-wing propaganda – which could save the lives of hundreds of people.
Full-body scanners alone are unlikely to prevent a terror attack, but when coupled with an array of other measures they constitute a real and substantial deterrent to Al Qaeda's unrelenting penchant for targeting aviation. Tests show that they are extremely effective when combined with physical pat-downs, explosive-sniffing dogs and behavioural observations.
Al Qaeda is a remarkably innovative and resourceful terror organisation, and the determination of its cadres places a grave burden on airport regulators to do everything in their power to foil each and every one of their attacks. It may be a cliché – but whereas terrorists only have to succeed once, security staff have to succeed every time. Full-body scanners assist that duty.
Ok, but what about my privacy rights?
This is the real nub of the issue, and here I can only express my opinion – albeit it one that's backed up by operational facts about the machines.
The first notion to dispel is that hordes of slack-jawed airport security screeners will be ogling your wobbly bits amid thunderous laughter as you gingerly step through the scanner. At the trials in Manchester Airport, the staff members viewing the screen have been located in an entirely separate room from the machine itself, with all camera phones being confiscated.
What's more, software developments for the technology mean that in many ways there is no 'naked' rendering whatsoever. Amsterdam Schiphol, which became the first airport to commit to the machines post-Detroit, will be using one such add-on to ensure that only potentially hazardous items are displayed, with most subjects simply appearing as a vague, unrevealing outline.
Sorry, I'm still not convinced.
Well sorry, but then go find another mode of transport.
You live in an age when the most popular form of mass transit involves cramming human bodies in big chunks of metal and then propelling them at high-speed and high altitude across cities and oceans.
You also live in an age when a nebulous, loosely-knit group called Al Qaeda has made its sole purpose the commission of mass murder on Western soil at every available opportunity. Historically speaking, despite our best efforts, it successfully carries out one spectacular attack every few years.
The combination of those two realities leads me, and I hope you, to the inevitable conclusion that airport security is a top priority for any Western government. If you can't stomach that, I suggest you take a train.