Is it a virtual strip search that reveals too much or a vital new tool in aviation security? Full body security scanners at European airports have been the focus of much debate, and held up as a prime example of why our fundamental rights need to be closely watched. Critics of the scanners talk about human dignity and privacy.
Airport body scanners appeared in Europe after a young man tried to blow up a plane flying from Amsterdam to the US in 2009. Explosives had been hidden inside his underwear.
Some scanner images found on the internet and in the media give the impression the naked form is not that detailed. But other images show that more is being revealed than some might expect.
One woman from Malta had a first-hand experience, just a few days after the European organisation she works for was asked to give an opinion on the scanners.
Anna Maria Darmanin, Vice President of the European Economic and Social Committee, told euronews: “It was horrible. First thing, I didn’t even know I was going through a body scanner. I was just sent through this glass thing. And when I was in it, actually I realised I was in a body scanner. And when I went out of it I complained because I said I have the right of choice, and I was told ‘you either go through this or you don’t fly’.
“And really, to me, it was really humiliating, because I felt my own dignity was trespassed, my own rights, just because I wanted to fly, were really diminished. And for me, actually sacrificing one’s rights should not be done for security.”
Brussels brought in new regulations, citing provisions of the charter of fundamental rights.
Passengers were given the right to refuse to be scanned and choose an alternative screening method. However, discussions are ongoing over the fact the UK is not applying this part of the rules.
The new law also says that images cannot be stored and the security officer analysing them must be in a separate room from where the scanner is.
And, because of health concerns, only non-x-ray body scanners can be used at EU airports.
In response to the privacy concerns, some airports have opted for new technology: generic stick figures have replaced the nude-like images.
But one of the groups that first spoke out on the issue believes there is still a lot more that needs to be done to satisfy passengers.
Nickle Pickles, Director of Big Brother Watch, said: “It’s one thing to satisfy lawyers and regulators, but it’s very different when we hear stories of people being forced to take infant children, for example, through body scanners with them; and also concerns around men looking at images of women being scanned. So there are still questions to be asked.
“But I think that the debate has certainly moved on now to be: how can we make this technology acceptable on a privacy level, and not just to move beyond the privacy issue? Because unfortunately, sometimes, when security’s concerned, it is used as a trump to all the other issues.”
Claudia Fusco from the Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport at the European Commission told euronews: “This is really one example where fundamental rights were taken into account from the beginning in the impact assessment which has accompanied the proposal, where the commission has put on the table some options, policy options, what we could do best in terms of security on one side and the fundamental rights.
“And of course the interest of the commission is to put the things together and to show both. And the final policy option, which is what we have in the legislation currently, is the best option which was possible.”
Euronews’ Seamus Kearney said: “The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union officially became legally binding when the Treaty of Lisbon came into force in December 2009. The charter is divided up into six different categories: dignity, justice, freedoms, solidarity, citizens’ rights and equality.”
But there is concern that people do not really understand why and how the charter is useful.
For example, they need to know that it is only legally binding on EU countries when they are implementing European Union law.
The European Commission is promising an annual progress report on application of the charter, with a new one to be released soon.
So what do the experts think?
Nuala Mole, founder and director of the Aire Centre in London (Advice on Individual Rights in Europe), told euronews: “One of the most important things that it does is that it ensures that people are entitled to go to a court to enforce their charter rights in any situation which is covered by EU law. And they have the full panoply of fair trial rights when they do this. This is not the case with the European Convention on Human Rights, which only gives you that full spectrum of fair trial rights in certain specified circumstances. So the charter is much wider, provided you come within it, provided it’s a subject which is governed by EU, European Union law.”
And one case not covered by the charter, for example, would be a human dignity complaint over a police search in the street. As there is no EU law in this area, Brussels would not be able to follow-up on such a complaint.
Nuala Mole from the The Aire Centre added:
“But of course the standards that the charter imposes are standards which are gradually being accepted across Europe. The UK and Poland entered a particular reservation to the charter, which said they didn’t want it to be fully applicable.
“And just last year, in a case that we were involved in about asylum seekers being sent back to Greece, the court made it clear that the UK and Poland were indeed bound by the standards of the charter, in the subject matter that was before the court.”
Nick Pickles from Big Brother Watch concluded: “Well I think it (the charter) clarifies a lot of things. Obviously the Human Rights Act put into British law something which was drawn up in the first part of the last century. So actually bringing it into line with modern life and modern technology is absolutely something that needed to happen.
“I think that the next step in the way we have to look forward is seeing how every day people can actually expect to live their lives without having to rely on these protections, rather than governments pursuing intrusive policies, to wait for them to be challenged in court.”