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Why Europe doesn't want an invasion of body scanners

In Europe, body scanners may simply not be cost-effective, regardless of whether they represent a real health risk or the digital equivalent of a strip search.

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Privacy concerns have meant only a tentative embrace of scanners elsewhere in Europe. In Germany, officials said scanners would be considered once these concerns are resolved. Only certain airports will initially be equipped in France, where the idea of deploying them was dropped in 2008.

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Spain also has reservations. The current holder of the agenda-setting European Union presidency, it is calling for the adoption of a common EU position to avoid different types of screening.

"The history of Europe is littered with totalitarian dictatorships, so in some ways there is greater sensitivity than in the US toward privacy, and weighing up data protection against national security," says Chris Pounder, a British data-protection expert. He believes that scanners can be made to comply with European laws by having protocols that ensure, for example, that operators viewing images cannot see the individual who has been scanned, and that images are deleted quickly.

Other takes on the privacy debate have also cropped up across the continent. The Rabbinical Center of Europe warned that scanners would violate the rights of religious Jewish women whose modesty would be compromised, while British children's rights campaigners said they could breach laws banning the creation of indecent images of children.

In a bid to address such worries, the Netherlands is testing software in scanners that displays a stylized body image – much like a stick figure – and highlights areas where objects are concealed.

Would machines have detected bomb?

A British Conservative MP who used to work for QinetiQ, a scanning technology firm, warned that scanners would probably not have detected the explosives reportedly strapped to Abdulmutallab's leg. "In all the testing that we undertook, it was unlikely that it would have picked up the current explosive devices being used by Al Qaeda," Ben Wallace said of passive millimeter wave scanners, attractive because of their low amounts of radiation.

Mr. Shanks, the former head of security at the British Airports Authority, also wonders about the future: "One wonders what would happen next time there was an incident with an individual who had concealed explosives internally."

One response is using transmission X-rays, which can see through the body. They are currently used only at some Russian airports to counter the threat from Chechen female suicide bombers.

Despite conforming to widely accepted safety standards, the X-rays emit higher levels of radiation. For now, the prospect of their introduction on a global scale appears distant, but experts have been quietly fretting about the next challenge to aviation since an Al Qaeda bomber with explosives inside his body tried to kill a Saudi prince last October.

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