Body scanners: Intrusive or essential?

3:39pm Thursday 11th February 2010

By Saima Afzal

The introduction of body scanners is causing consternation in people from all backgrounds who do not want their privacy, and indeed, bodies, invaded in this way.

There are however, some who are likely to be more disadvantaged than others, particularly those who practice religions that require no man other than husbands to see the female form and which bring pressure for strict observance. This could easily prevent women from the freedom of travel that is their right. One answer could be to have a scanner purely for women, operated by women and discreetly located out of the male eye view, but this may be disregarded for efficiency reasons.

There is a fear that profiling will be used, whereby individuals or groups whose general appearance is similar to that of known terrorists are asked by security staff to go through the body scanner.

I am concerned that this is likely to impact detrimentally on people from BME communities and those from minority faiths, which in turn can create barriers and cause a loss of trust.

Profiling is based on intelligence on known terrorists and clearly some of the traits such as race and ethnicity will become the basis of the profiling.

In my view, racial profiling is a very dangerous tool to use to prevent and identify terrorism as it is likely to simply serve as a warning to those committing terrorist acts to change their profile. As it happens not even the security agencies can provide us with a single profile of a terrorist.

Concerns regarding the use of scanners must be addressed before they are widely introduced, not in hindsight, as a reaction to issues that arise. Nationally we are lobbying the Government to ensure that diligent monitoring will take place from the outset and that diverse needs of all kinds are accommodated wherever possible.

In order to be an effective deterrent, body scanners need to be proven effective in the first place, so I’m keen to establish whether pace-makers and metal implants will be picked up and mistaken for something more sinister, or alternatively, whether something more sinister can be mistaken for a medical necessity.

While one act of terrorism prevented will be validation of the scanners, I believe that processes need to be put in place so that when innocent people are detained lessons are learned for the future. I want to know how people will be treated should something unlikely show up on the image screen, as this is a very public procedure and those detained must have their rights explained to them, in a language that they can confirm they understand. We need clarification on a number of points, such as what happens to the paperwork if the alert proves to be a false alarm. Do the individuals concerned get a copy? Is it kept and for how long, or is it destroyed?

Does the individual have the right to inform someone that they have been detained in this way, or ask for a solicitor? Is the process the same as a Stop and Search under terrorism law? How long does it take before people get their passports back?

These are all key points which need to be established before the public can have confidence that body scanning will prove its worth, keep people safe from the threat of terrorism and prevent those who might attempt such acts from trying in the first place.

We are working hard to get clarity on these and other points to ensure that no individual suffers unnecessarily as a result, at which point we will be able to inform people what to expect. While public safety is paramount, the need for common sense and decency must prevail. If the public has confidence in the system, then they will comply with it and it is far more likely to be effective.

Saima Afzal, is a member of Lancashire Police Authority and national lead for Equality and Diversity at the Association of Police Authorities, continues her sometimes contentious look at the issues facing people from BME communities.

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