The UK Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has written to the UK Government warning it that the use of full-body scanners at British airports – currently London Heathrow and Manchester – may breach human
rights laws, throwing a spanner into the works of what is already a very confused sector.
The new technology was swiftly brought in at UK and some US airports, as well as at a limited number of European airports after the failed Christmas Day terrorist attack on an aircraft bound for Detroit. Security chiefs have said that had such scanners been in operation on that day in Schiphol Airport then the explosives attached to the would-be terrorist's body might have been detected.
In a letter to the Secretary of State for Transport, Lord Adonis, and detailed legal arguments sent to officials working on the implementation of body scanners, the Commission says it recognises that the threat posed by terrorist activities means the Government needs to take steps to protect the travelling public.
But it points out that it has expressed concerns about the apparent absence of safeguards to ensure the body scanners are operated in a lawful, fair and non-discriminatory manner. It also has serious doubts that the decision to roll this out in all UK airports complies with the law.
DISCRIMINATION IS ALSO A CONCERN
The Commission argues that the current use of body scanners, already in place at Heathrow and Manchester airports, may be breaking discrimination law as well as breaching passengers' right to privacy. It calls on the Secretary of State to ensure that these concerns are addressed.
Referring to its concerns, the EHRC said: ‘The Home Secretary has indicated in the House of Commons that people will be selected on a random basis, but this has not been publicly endorsed by the Transport Secretary. The lack of transparency about how people will be chosen for body scanning means that it would be impossible for passengers to challenge why they've been selected.
‘The Commission considers that greater openness on the part of Government is vital to demonstrate fully how it is intending to comply with the law, specifically within the framework of its equalities and human rights duties, and ensure appropriate accountability and transparency in the roll-out of the use of body scanners to UK airports.
‘An absence of safeguards, such as monitoring who is being scanned and how those scans are carried out, means that authorities are unable to check if, in practice, people are being unfairly selected on the basis of their race, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation or disability.’
Trevor Phillips, Chairman of the Commission went even further: ‘The right to life is the ultimate human right and we support the government's review of security policies. State action like border checks, stop and search and full body scanning are undertaken for good reasons. But without proper care such policies can end up being applied in ways which do discriminate against vulnerable groups or harm good community relations.
‘National security policies are intended to protect our lives and our freedoms; but it would be the ultimate defeat if that protection destroyed our other liberties.’
COMMENT: Anyone who saw pictures of the burning twin towers in New York after the 9/11 attacks knows full well that terrorists do not discriminate – or make any distinction whatsoever – between race, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation or disability. The object is to kill as many people as possible and have it televised in as much gory detail as possible around the world.
If body scanners can help to avoid any more nightmare scenarios of burning aircraft and buildings and dying innocent people, then what other choice do the authorities and security chiefs have?