Body scanners may be illegal, says rights watchdog

The Equality and Human Rights Commission believes there is a lack of safeguards against discrimination in selecting passengers for body scans at airports
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor on

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."

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