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Travel Essentials

The business traveller’s toolkit

Mar 1, 2010

by Mifi Purvis


The New Security: An Inside View

Travellers through Kelowna International Airport faced a choice in late 2008: whether or not to participate in trials of new millimetre-wave, full-body scanners or to opt for security the old-fashioned way, with metal detectors and potential pat-downs. By the end of the trial, 32,000 of them had stepped into the scanning booth, according to Mathieu Larocque of the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority. CATSA called the trials a success.

Then a foiled Christmas Day 2009 bombing aboard a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit prompted Minister of Transport John Baird to announce that his department had accelerated plans to purchase and deploy the body scanners. Delivery of the first 11 units took place in January of this year, a further 32 to follow in subsequent weeks. “We’re still finalizing deployment plans,” says Larocque.

While the scanners don’t amount to X-ray vision, if you stood in one, a security official would see a digital version of you on screen – starkers – but he wouldn’t be able to recognize you later. To him, you’d appear as a pale creature with a bald head and indistinct features. But the security guy would definitely be able to see creases, cracks and saggy bits. Squeamish? The scanners (made by L-3 Communications, headquartered in New York) will be used in airports that have flights to the United States.

Larocque says the how-to part is simple. “Preparation is no different from the traditional security checkpoint,” he says. Remove jewellery, watches, keys, pens and coins and put them into the grey bin. Then, step into the scanning booth with your hands raised over your head, legs slightly apart. Ten seconds is all it takes.

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“An independent survey revealed that 95% of Kelowna passengers preferred the scan over a physical search,” Larocque says. Still, the Kelowna passengers were self-selected in that they volunteered to participate in the trial. Also, the technology opens a can of worms in terms of privacy, security and logistics.

“There are privacy implications,” says Steven Penney, associate professor of law at the University of Alberta. “But a number of measures can help.” Among these, he says, are that security personnel view the scans at a location removed from passengers. That is to say, nobody’s going to crane his neck around a corner to check you out after looking at your scan. “There should be no retention of images,” Penney adds, “and same-gender personnel should view the scans.” But the burden of logistics for accommodating even one scanner is substantial. Providing his-and-hers booths and staff would increase an already significant expense during recessionary times for Transport Canada. (Each unit has an approximately $250,000 price tag.)

Penney’s colleague Thomas Butko, a U of A professor of political science specializing in terrorism and security, says that security measures tend to play catch-up with threats. He argues that there’s no way to measure the efficacy of scanning booths as deterrents. “You can’t survey potential terrorists to ask them what convinced them not to blow something up.”

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