Monday, 4 January 2010

Nudie Pics at the Airport?

I’ve just touched down in London after a whirlwind tour through the US, and I think I’ll be happy to not see another plane again for a long while. Flying back from Chicago to London I could already see the effects of the attempted Christmas terrorist bombing – what looked like full cavity searches for every person coming into the US. And from what I read this morning it sounds like we’ll all be shooting naked videos of ourselves at Heathrow within a few weeks time. Welcome to the new age of air travel.

I flew Air Canada back and forth to the US, despite major misgivings given their abysmal reputation for delays. My initial reluctance proved well founded. Out of four flight legs each was delayed by at least two hours. I say this after every time I fly them but this time I mean it – never again!

As I was transferring through the airport in Montreal I could see down through the glass wall into the entranceway for people transferring to flights to the US – and it was a madhouse. There was a massive hall of pat-down stations. Every single person flying to the US is now getting a full body search, and there was a queue stretching back for what seemed like miles as each person entered this massive hall to be individually meticulously searched. Lucky for me, those flying away from the US didn’t have to do that (though I’m not sure I understand the logic there…)

Walking through the airport I was listening to my podcast of Meet the Press, and naturally they were talking about the new airport security, and whether or not all airports should start using full-body scanners – which can see through you clothes and allow the attendant to see if you are hiding anything in your crevices. Awhile back I went through one of these things at Heathrow – they were just trying them out on selected people temporarily. At the time I didn’t know the thing was x-raying through my clothes – I guess I didn’t think much about it. Though I do remember it taking a very long time.

In the Meet the Press broadcast I noticed former Homeland Security Michael Chertoff said something inaccurate about the EU, which I’m now seeing repeated in the American press this morning. Chertoff said the EU has “banned” the use of these devices because of privacy issues. Now, right when I heard that I knew that didn’t make sense because just a few minutes before he had said that the Amsterdam airport where the Christmas Day flight came from was using full-body scanners but not for US-bound flights. So how could the Netherlands have been using the scanners if they had been banned by EU law?

The European press has gotten the nuances of this more accurately today. When these devices first started being tested out at certain European airports (including Heathrow), the EU advised the member states to hold off on fully rolling them out because there were privacy and human rights implications that needed to be addressed. The European Commission was set to meet on the issue soon to decide on an EU-wide policy on the new devices. But the member states have been free to use them if they wanted, they were only advised to hold off on their implementation by the EU.

Gordon Brown has apparently decided to go gung-ho for body scanners, going for that that coveted voyeur vote that the British are so known for. Airports across the UK will be instructed to install the scanners as soon as possible, with the eventual aim of having them replace metal detectors altogether. Of course that day is probably a long way off, so in the mean time it will mean two different sets of scanners for air travellers.

As someone who flies a lot, I am decidedly not excited about this prospect. I’m not sure if I’m all that bothered about the privacy aspect (I’ll just remember to wear nice underwear when I fly!). But one does have to ask, where do we draw the line? One can envision a scenario where security check points eventually become so elaborate and invasive that it will take 4 hours to check in for a one-hour flight, during which time a one-on-one interview, baggage inspection, x-ray scan and cavity search are all routine parts of travelling.

It’s a delicate balance to be sure.

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