A naked assault on our right to privacy

Airport scanners that will ogle our naked bodies are only a more hi-tech version of everyday state surveillance.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Politics

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Ever since the 2006 foiled terror plot to use liquid explosives to blow up transatlantic jets departing from Heathrow Airport, going through airport security checks has become an ever-bigger hassle. In light of this, any move to make the process more smooth would seem welcome. But at what price?

Now, as anyone who has taken a flight from the UK in recent years will know, not only do passengers have to empty their pockets of metal objects before going through the security scanners, but they are also required to pour any liquids they wish to carry in their hand luggage into 100ml containers and fit them all into a single, see-through plastic bag. Personally, every time I fly, as I try to squeeze in all those travel-size liquid containers – my preferred brands of toothpaste, deodorant, lip gloss and perfume in full view – while simultaneously yanking my laptop out of my inevitably over-sized hand luggage, removing any coat, scarf, chunky jewellery or belt and fishing loose change out of my pockets, I curse those damn terrorists and the overzealous British security officials.

So perhaps the introduction of the Iris Recognition Immigration System, which allows eligible passengers to use automated barriers at UK terminals, and of the queue-busting facial recognition gates for owners of the new e-passport at London’s Stansted Airport is all good news? Except, of course, that while these things will make going through passport controls quicker and smoother, the trade-off is that our biometric data is being stored on yet more databases. And it also means that the state is using technologically advanced ways to hinder, even more effectively than before, those non-EU nationals without hard-to-come-by visas from crossing British borders.

While Neale Jouques, Stansted Airport’s head of terminal, has said that ‘The new facial recognition gates have been very well received by our passengers, with their feedback overwhelmingly positive’ (1), Manchester Airport’s security checks may just have gone a bit too sci-fi for most people’s comfort. The airport has introduced a full-body, human X-ray scanner which, while saving passengers from the hassle of removing any clothes, shoes or belts, also produces ‘naked’ black-and-white images which are seen by an officer in a remote location before then being deleted.

The scanners, which produce a virtual, three-dimensional image of passengers, will also show up breast enlargements, body piercings and a clear outline of passengers’ genitals. The scanners have already been used in Los Angeles and New York and are being rolled out at airports across the US. The UK Department for Transport will decide whether to install them permanently at British airports in about a year’s time (2).

An example of an image
from the new scanner

The scanner provides graphic proof of the extreme lengths to which the authorities are willing to go when it comes to inspecting the public and prying into our private lives (or private parts in this case) in the name of national security. With the expansion of state-sanctioned snooping and surveillance methods – from CCTV to iris scans and ID cards – the state’s ability to record and monitor our everyday lives has grown and grown.

Yet at the same time, our ability to record the actions of the state has diminished. As I reported recently on spiked, ‘no photo zones’ in the UK are expanding and plenty of professional and amateur photographers, as well as tourists, have been prevented from taking pictures by police officers who have invoked Section 44 of the Counter-Terrorism Act 2000; this gives police extended stop and search powers. And since the introduction of Section 76 of the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008, photographing a cop or members of the armed forces or intelligence services can land you a fine or even a 10-year prison sentence (3).

With the state clamping down on our freedom to hold it accountable for its actions, it seems the government’s favourite mantra that ‘if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear’, used to justify growing surveillance, does not apply to the police.

In the case of the new airport X-ray scanner it is perfectly reasonable that people might want to hide their breast implants, beer bellies and genitals from airport officers. And it is also perfectly reasonable that we might want to hide information about our political affiliations, personal relationships or bank account details from the authorities, too, instead of merely blindly trusting the state or accepting that the authorities have the right to know intimate details about our personal lives and habits.

However, while the X-ray scanner allows strangers to view graphic images of our physiques, there are plenty of less explicit or hi-tech forms of monitoring our bodies and habits that have been introduced without much protest. Contemporary British society is infused with impulses and policies to survey, monitor, measure and ogle the public. From the ban on smoking in public spaces, and in some cases even in our own homes, to the expansion of the Independent Safeguarding Authority vetting database and the recent proposal by anti-obesity campaigners that midwives should record the body mass index of newly pregnant women and their partners (4), our liberties are being increasingly infringed upon ‘for our own good’.

While the airport scanner forces us literally to bare all for the authorities, these other measures involve less machinery, but are nonetheless pernicious ways of making us comply with standards, values and behaviours defined by the state and by various health-and-safety campaigners.

Surveillance methods, increased policing and the roll-out of lifestyle correction programmes have been continually expanded in recent years because of a political climate where a cavalier attitude to individual autonomy rules and where the boundaries between the private and public spheres have collapsed. Today, we are told to defer to various authorities on everything from community relations to our body size and consumption choices.

All of this has been met with little resistance. Many people express discomfort with hi-tech forms of monitoring the public while accepting less hi-tech but equally authoritarian surveillance measures. So while many rile against the ‘database state’ and don’t like the idea of being scanned and spied on by an all-seeing machine at an airport, they tend to conform to other forms of third-party intervention in community life, interpersonal relations and lifestyle choices. Yet such interventions, while not as obviously spooky as an X-ray machine that stares at our private parts, also pose a great threat to our liberties and self-determination as well as to solidarity amongst the public.

For many, high-tech machines invoke scary images of a Big Brother, sci-fi state. However, it is not intrusive technology per se that we need to worry about, but the intrusive state which sanctions it.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Dolan Cummings wondered why we submit to the ‘surveillance society’. Brendan O’Neill saw CCTV cameras as political rather than practical. John Fitzpatrick thought the real problem with surveillance technology is that it encourages us to think less freely. Rob Killick asked: ‘Should we be afraid of State 2.0?’. Or read more at spiked issue Liberties.

(1) Stansted passengers urged to show their faces at hi-tech check-in gates, Business Weekly, 12 May 2009

(2) ‘Naked’ scanner in airport trial, BBC News, 13 October 2009

(3) See Hands off my camera! and Warning! These photos may be useful to terrorists, by Nathalie Rothschild.

(4) See Weighing into family life — again, by Rob Lyons.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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