UK airport body scans will not be opt out

Travellers will not be allowed an alternative to a full-body scan at airport security, despite the introduction of new European privacy rights, the UK transport minister has said
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

Travellers from UK airports will not be able to avoid full-body scans that show them naked on a screen, even though new European rules promise passengers can opt out, the UK government has said.

Airport body scanner

Travellers from UK airports will not be granted an alternative to full-body scans, the government has said. Image credit: John Wild

The EU last Wednesday brought in a legislative framework designed to give passengers basic privacy rights, including the right to opt out of a scan. However, UK transport minister Justine Greening told parliament on Monday that UK security concerns mean there will be no alternative, such as a pat-down, for passengers.

"I have considered carefully whether there are alternative screening methods which might deliver equivalent levels of security to a security scan," she said. "A full private search — involving the loosening and/or removal of clothing in the presence of security staff in a private room — would deliver a reasonable level of assurance. However, I believe that this is likely to represent a greater intrusion of privacy than a security scan."

Greening said using alternative methods would lead to "increased costs and longer queues" at airport security. The UK's Aviation Security Act allows the government to maintain the status quo in airport security scanning, she added.

The EU can set out minimum standards which all states have to comply with, but individual states are within their rights to impose additional security measures.
– Department of Transport

Full-body scans, which are in use at Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester airports, were brought in following a failed attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow a hole in a transatlantic aircraft over Detroit in 2009.

Security scanners should be rolled out more widely at UK airports, Greening said, noting this should be done with "enhanced screening technology with better privacy safeguards".

The UK government can deny the opt-out privacy right by law, according to the Department for Transport.

"The EU can set out minimum standards which all states have to comply with, but individual states are within their rights to impose additional security measures," a spokesman for the department told ZDNet UK. "A regular pat-down search doesn't produce the same level of security as a scanner."

Health concerns

In addition to privacy issues, there are health concerns around the radiation produced by X-ray 'back-scatter' scanners. The European Commission has asked the European Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks to review scientific evidence of the effects of exposing passengers to radiation at airports.

People who decline to undergo the scanning procedure cannot board a plane. "Passengers by and large are accepting of these procedures," the Department for Transport spokesman said, adding that since scanners had been introduced, 12 people have refused to submit to the process. "That's a tiny proportion," he said. 

Privacy campaigner Alex Hanff said this does not indicate that the general population accepts the use of body scanners.

"People feel obliged to fly, as money has been spent," Hanff, communications project leader at Privacy International, told ZDNet UK. "To say only 12 people have refused to fly is no indication of the popularity of scanners. If people have paid for tickets, they want to fly."

The Labour government began consultation for an interim code of practice for scanners before the last general election. The consultation finished on 19 July and received over 6,000 responses.

Get the latest technology news and analysis, blogs and reviewsdelivered directly to your inbox with ="http:>ZDNet UK'snewsletters.
Editorial standards