Europe warms to full body scanners at airports after Northwest bomb scare

Europe leaders are now reconsidering using full body scanners that they had until recently opposed as lurid and voyeuristic.

Cynthia Boll/AP/File
An instruction sign is seen inside a body scanner at Schiphol airport, Netherlands, Monday. The Netherlands announced Wednesday, Dec. 30, it will immediately begin using full body scanners for flights heading to the United States.

When first raised by European Union officials last year, airport “body scans” of passengers were panned by politicians and media here as an unthinkable violation of human rights and dignity.

Yet a week after a failed bombing attempt on a Detroit-bound aircraft – in which a body scan could have detected padding used by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to hide explosive capability – views are changing. While many European authorities are not on board officially, a shift from “unacceptable” to “acceptable, provided the technology can be improved to protect modesty” is underway.

The issue remains sensitive and divisive. But in a reversal of stated policy, German justice and interior ministry officials are saying the electromagnetic scanners that offer clear imaging underneath clothes are preferable to security measures that did not prove effective in stopping Mr. Abdulmutallab.

German Interior Minister Thomas de Mazière said he is ready to introduce full body scanners if they are safe and "fully guarantee" the privacy rights of passengers. Wolfgang Bosbach, Bundestag interior committee chief, told Germany's Tagesspiegel: "If this technology [full body scanners] has demonstrated its usefulness in practice, i.e. it works reliably and is quick, we should use it."

Currently, body scans in Dutch airports are conducted voluntarily as an alternative to a “pat down.” But Dutch and British authorities now say they expect body scanning to become regularized. Dutch Justice Minister Ernst Hirsch Ballin told reporters yesterday that he spoke with US Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano this week and planned to make body scanners "standard procedure" in Dutch airports for flights to the US.

Authorities at Amsterdam’s Schipol airport had already been testing body-scanning techniques. Schipol’s chief operating manager, Ad Rutten, said his colleagues are banking on full approval of the measures by the EU in the coming year.

British Home Secretary Alan Johnson said yesterday: "We intend to be at the cutting edge of all this new technology and to ensure that we put it in place as quickly as possible.” Body scans have been experimented with since 2004 at London's Heathrow, and are used in Manchester and in Zurich, as well as Schipol.

When first raised by the European Commission in September 2008, body scans were considered unthinkable here. European members of parliament voted 361 against and 16 in favor (with 181 abstentions). The intrusive scans were described as virtual strip searches, voyeuristic, and a violation of a right to privacy since in many of the machines, genitalia are clearly imaged. German Social Democratic Party member of the European parliament Wolfgang Kreissl-Dörfler decried "the paranoia of the EU's interior ministers” on terrorism.

France has yet to decide a post-Detroit policy, but one is expected shortly. Yet for the upcoming New Year’s travel day – on flights to the US – France is putting in robust measures at Charles DeGaulle airport that involve a second search of carry-on luggage and travelers, between the flight waiting lobby and the aircraft door.

Two diplomats in Germany consulted by the Monitor affirmed that the scans were so unpopular and raised so much lurid imagery that many governments have officially eschewed them, even while stepping up actual tests of the technology as security concerns deepened.

American concern with terrorism and counter-measures is often described here as over-wrought, and in the wake of the Christmas bombing attempt, many here are still critical of blanket proposals for securing US-bound flights, like toilet monitors, staying seated, and rules on disallowing anything placed on passengers laps in the final hour of flight.

Yet the shift in opinion on body scans might be summed up by a front-page editorial in the German daily Die Welt, which weighed privacy against greater security: "Privacy finds its limits when the life of others is at risk, and that is the case in this matter. People who are worried and put their privacy above the lives of others should not underestimate the extent to which Germans would like to stay alive.”

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