Body scanners may be illegal, says rights watchdog

Body scanners may be illegal, says rights watchdog

Summary: The Equality and Human Rights Commission believes there is a lack of safeguards against discrimination in selecting passengers for body scans at airports

TOPICS: Security

The use of full-body scanners at airports could break UK laws on discrimination, race relations and privacy, the government equality watchdog has warned.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said in a statement on Tuesday that the government needs to take immediate action over the scanners, which allow airport security personnel to view travellers as though they were naked.

The statement follows a request from EHRC to home secretary Alan Johnson in January, seeking justification for the government's profiling and body-scanning plans.

In Tuesday's statement, the watchdog said there is an absence of safeguards to check whether people are being unfairly selected for body-scan checks, which are supposed to be random. The body scans were introduced at Heathrow and Manchester Airports on 1 February following a suspected attempt by 'underpants bomber' Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow up a flight to Detroit on 25 December, 2009.

EHRC chair Trevor Phillips set out the EHRC's concerns about discrimination on the basis of religious dress, destination, nationality and national origin in a letter to the secretary of state for transport, Lord Adonis, on 12 February.

"The Commission... has serious doubts that the decision to roll this system out in all UK airports complies with the law or properly assesses the impact it may have," Phillips wrote.

"We are yet to see sufficient evidence that this decision complies with the general or specific equality duties under the Race Relations Act 1976, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 or the Disability Discrimination Act 1995."

In the letter, Phillips said a full equality impact assessment had not been carried out when an interim code of practice was put in place to govern the use of full-body scanners. He added that the scanners' use may breach the right to privacy under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

"State action like border checks, stop and search and full-body scanning are undertaken for good reasons," Phillips said in the EHRC statement on Tuesday.

"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."

Code of practice
In response, the Department for Transport (DfT) said in a statement on Tuesday that its interim code of practice did address discrimination and privacy concerns, and that it was "committed to ensuring that all security measures are used in a way which is legal, proportionate and non-discriminatory".

"That is why we have been absolutely clear that those passengers who are randomly selected for screening will not be chosen because of any personal characteristics, and why we have published an interim code of practice which addresses privacy concerns in relation to body scanners," the DfT said in its statement.

The government department said that while it had not carried out an equalities impact assessment for the interim code of practice, it was in the process of doing so for the final code of practice.

"Given the current security threat level, we believe it was essential to start introducing scanners immediately," said the DfT. "We are currently carrying out a full equalities impact assessment on the code of practice, which will be published shortly when we begin a public consultation on these issues."

Topic: Security

Tom Espiner

About Tom Espiner

Tom is a technology reporter for He covers the security beat, writing about everything from hacking and cybercrime to threats and mitigation. He also focuses on open source and emerging technologies, all the while trying to cut through greenwash.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Which is more illegal, offence caused to a few or deaths of many?

    Is it really considered better to risk people of all nationalities and religious persuasions being blown up rather than offend the occasional vocal "minorities"? Can't these Human Rights people see which rights are the more important?
  • Profiling

    Fact, 99.9% of all terrorists are muslim. If you know which islamic country an airline passenger is from, then do a body scan. No use scanning an 80 year old from Norway, or a 15 year old from Wales. Profiling is the only way to make certain you are scanning the right types of people. It might be better to have a 12" steel walled enclosure, and a device to detonate any explosive device detected, during the scan.
  • Re: Body scanners my be illegal ......

    I tend to agree with the comments from Geof0 and Ator1940.

    It seems to me that, although the body scanners were readily available at short notice, the impact of them on the vast majority of decent people and the regulations and safeguards have not been properly considered, or at all, in the rush to deploy them, and have certainly not been made transparently and freely available.

    Many of Thomas Jefferson's quotations come to mind which suggest that our governments' approach to dealing with security, and all other aspects of the Nanny State, is ill conceived.

    It strikes me that the terrorists are winning hands down with each new imposition on our freedoms.

    One of the things that always come to mind when commenting on freedom and genuine choice is the time, 25 years ago, when my the young children accompanied me whilst working on a construction project. To this day, they remember the freedom that they enjoyed
    The Former Moley
  • Correction Re; : Body scanners may be illegal .....

    Correction to the last paragraph, which as it stands is not very meaningful:-

    One of the things that always come to mind when commenting on freedom and genuine choice is the time, 25 years ago, when my the young children accompanied me whilst working abroad on a construction project in Philippines. To this day, they remember the freedom that they enjoyed.
    The Former Moley
  • Still won't catch them all.

    The first thing that comes to mind is daily quotations scanned via classifications of different people, and some will be scanned more than others there's no doubt about that.

    But still it won't catch them all, because religious beliefs come in all shape and sizes, it's a bit like saying what does a thief look like, they is no answer to that question.

    What did make me chuckle though was what ator said a detonation room, the irony is that does not discriminate at all, although it's completely unfeasible in this day and age.

    The one thing that will be on most peoples minds is having just come from the scanning room and being given the all clear, is when they suddenly catch a glance of one of the staff smirking at them, that's not really going to go down well at all.