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Privacy Concerns in Whole Body Imaging: A Few Questions

Posted by Elonnai Hickok at Nov 17, 2010 07:25 AM |
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Security versus is a question that the world is facing today when it comes to using the Whole Body Imaging technology to screen a traveller visually in airports and other places. By giving real life examples from different parts of the world Elonnai Hickok points out that even if the Government of India eventually decides to advocate the tight security measures with some restrictions then such measures need to balanced against concerns raised for personal freedom. She further argues that privacy is not just data protection but something which must be viewed holistically and contextually when assessing new policies.

What is Whole Body Imaging?

Whole Body Imaging is an umbrella term that includes various technologies that can produce images of the body without the cover of clothing. The purpose of WBI technology is to screen travellers visually in order to detect weapons, explosives and other threat items more thoroughly, without the cover of clothing. Examples include: Ultrasonic Imaging Technology, Superconducting Quantum Interference Device, T-ray Technology, Millimeter Wave Technology, MM-wave Technology, and X-ray Scanning Systems. The two main types of scanners used for security screening are: Millimeter Wave and Backscatter machines. The Millimeter Wave machines send radio waves over a person and produce a three-dimensional image by measuring the energy reflected back. Backscatter machines use low-level x-rays to create a two-dimensional image of the body. The machines show what a physical pat-down would potentially reveal as well, but what a metal detector would not find – for example, they will detect items such as chemical explosives and non-metallic weapons.  

How are These Technologies Being Used - Two News Items to Ponder:

News Item One 

In 2009-2010 a Nigerian attempted to blow up a Detroit-bound aircraft in the United States. In response to this attempt, in addition to the heightened security concerns in light of 9/11, the United States has pushed for the greater use of full-body scanners among other initiatives. The hope is that the scanners will bring a heightened level of security and stop potential attacks from occurring in the future.

Also, in response to the attempted attack on the U.S, the Mumbai Terrorist attacks, and many other incidents, India has likewise considered the implementation of full-body scanners in airports. According to an article published on 2 January 2010 in The Times of India, soon after the incident in the United States, the Indian Intelligence Bureau submitted a comprehensive airport review that spoke about the need for full-body scanners. On 6 July 2010, the Times of India issued a story on how full-body scanners will not be used at the two Dubai airports. The story went on to explain in detail how the airports in Dubai have decided against the use of full-body scanners as a security measure, because they ‘contradict’ Islam, and because the government respects the privacy of individuals and their personal freedom. The head of the Dubai police department was quoted as saying “The scanners will be replaced with other inspection systems that reserve travelers' privacy.” At airports that utilize the scanners, not everyone is required to go through a full-body scanner at the security checkpoint (I myself have never been in one), but instead the authority will randomly select persons to be scanned. An individual has the option to opt out of the scan, but if they choose to do so, they must undergo a thorough body pat-down search. During the scan, the officer zoomed over parts of the image for a better look, if any portion of the image appears suspicious. Once a scan is completed, the passenger waits while the scan is sent to and reviewed by another officer elsewhere. The officers are connected by wireless headsets. If no problems are found, the image is supposed to be erased. If a problem is found, the officer tells the checkpoint agent where the problem is, and the image is retained until the issue is resolved, and then it is erased. The wireless transmission of the image by a computer to another officer for analysis is a built-in safeguard, because the agent who sees the image never sees the passenger and the officer who sees the passenger never sees the image.

Despite this, the machines are controversial because they generate images of a passengers' entire body, which raises concerns as to the possible privacy violations that could occur. Besides the physical invasion that the scanners pose, privacy concerns have centered on the fact that the actual implementation of the procedures for retention and deletion of images is unclear.  For instance, in Florida, images from a scanner at a courthouse were found to have been leaked and circulated. In 2008, the US Department of Homeland Security did a report on the privacy of whole-body imaging and its compliance with the Fair Information Practice Principles. Among other safeguards, the report concluded that the image does not provide enough details for personal identification, the image is not retained, and the machine could in fact work to protect the privacy of an individual by sparing the person the indignity of a pat-down.

News Item Two

In October this year, Fox News came out with a story that told how the use of x-ray scanners, similar to the ones used in airports, are now being placed in vans that can see into the inside of the vehicles around them. The vans are used to detect car bombs, drugs, radioactivity and people hiding. The vans have been used at major crowd events like the Super Bowl. According to the Department of Homeland Security, the vans have led to the seizure of 89,000 pounds of narcotics and $4 million worth of currency. In vans the technology used is the backscatter x-ray machine. The cars are more controversial than the scanners at airports, because it is not possible to obtain consent from the target vehicle, and a person in a car does not have the option to opt out for a thorough car search. Furthermore, images are not sent to another authority to be analyzed, but are instead analyzed by the authority in the car.  Reactions to the vans have been mixed. Some worry about the invasion to privacy that the vans pose, the lack of consent that an individual gives to having his car scanned, and the fact that these scans are conducted without a warrant. Others believe that the security the vans can provide far outweighs the threats to privacy. In airports, if evidence is found against a person, it is clear that airport authorities have the right to stop the individual and proceed further. This right is given by an individual‘s having chosen to do business at the airport, but a person who is traveling on a public street or highway has not chosen to do business there. It is much more difficult to conclude that by driving on a road an individual has agreed to the possible scanning of his/her car. 

Questions at the Heart of the WBI Debate:

Whole Body Imaging raises both simple and difficult questions about the dilemma of security vs. privacy, and privacy as a right vs. privacy as protection. If privacy is seen as a constitutional right, as it is in the European Union under the Convention on Human Rights, then Whole Body Imaging raises questions about the human body — its legal and moral status, its value, its meaning, and the dignity that is supposed to be upheld by the virtue of an individual’s privacy being a right. If Whole Body Imaging threatens the dignity of an individual, is it correct to permit the procedure at airports and allow vans with x-ray machines to roam the streets? This question segues into a deeper question about security over privacy. The security appeal of WBI technology is its pro-active ability to provide intelligence information about potential threats before anything actually happens. Does the security that these machines bring trump the right to privacy that they could be violating?  Isn’t this particularly true given that airport scanning is of only a randomly-selected portion of travelers?  Is the loss of privacy that occurs proportional to the need and the means met? What is the purpose of security in these contexts?  All privacy legislation must work to strike a balance between security and privacy. Typically, in terms of governments and security, restrictions are placed on the amount of unregulated monitoring that governments can do through judicial oversight. Warrantless monitoring is typically permitted only in the case of declared national emergencies. Should WBI technology be subject to the same restrictions as, say, wiretapping? or would this defeat the purpose of the technology, given that the purpose is to prevent an event that could lead into a declared national emergency.  Furthermore, how can legislation and policy, which has traditionally been crafted to be reactive in nature, adequately respond to the pro-active nature of the technology and its attempt to stop a crime before it happens?

How Have Other Countries Responded to Whole Body Imaging and How Should India Respond?

Countries around the world have responded differently to the use of whole body imaging. In the EU, full-body scanners are used only in the UK, and their use there is being protested, with the Human Rights Charter being used to argue that full-body imaging lowers human dignity and violates a person’s right to privacy. In EU countries such as Germany, there has been a strong backlash against full-body image scanners by calling them ‘Naked Scanners’. Nonetheless, according to an ABC report, in 2009 the Netherlands announced that scanners would be used for all flights heading from Amsterdam's airport to the United States.

In the US, where scanners are being used, EPIC is suing the TSA on the grounds that the TSA should have enacted formal regulations to govern their use.  It argues that the body scanners violate the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. Canada has purchased 44 new imaging scanners but has suggested using image algorithms to protect the individuals’ privacy even further.  A Nigerian leader also pledged to use full-body scanners.

Though India has not implemented the use of WBI technology, it has considered doing so twice, in 2008 and again in 2010. Legally, India would have to wrestle with the same questions of security vs. privacy that the world is facing.  From the government’s demand for the Blackberry encryption keys and the loose clauses in the ITA and Telegraph Act that permit wiretapping and monitoring by the government, it would appear that the Government of India would advocate the tight security measures with few restrictions, and would welcome the potential that monitoring has to stop terror from occurring. But this would have to be balanced against the concerns raised by the police officers’ observation in the Times of India that the use of scanners, was “against Islam, and an invasion of personal freedom.”  It is not clear which value would be given priority.

The variation in responses and the uneven uptake of the technology around the world shows how controversial the debate between security and privacy is, and how culture, context, and perception of privacy all contribute to an individual’s, a nation’s, and a country’s willingness or unwillingness to embrace new technology. The nature of the debate shows that privacy is not an issue only of data protection, that it is much more than just a sum of numbers.  Instead, privacy is something that must be viewed holistically and contextually, and that must be a factor when assessing new policies. 

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