Full Body Scanners at Airports May Violate U.K. Child Porn Laws

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Superman once used his x-ray vision to peek at Lois Lane's underwear, but he somehow resisted the temptation to take a more X-rated look. In the real world, full-body airport scanners are now poised to scrutinize us all the way down to the skin. For many heading off to exotic locations so they can lounge around nearly naked on a beach, this ignominious unveiling may not be a big deal, but when it comes to capturing images of children, the U.K. has a big problem. It turns out that these scanners violate child protection laws, which deem it illegal to create an indecent image or "pseudo-image" of a child under the age of 16.%%DynaPub-Enhancement class="enhancement contentType-HTML Content fragmentId-1 payloadId-61603 alignment-right size-small"%% At England's Manchester Airport, full-body scanners that cost £80,000 apiece (roughly $129,000 in U.S. currency) are currently undergoing a 12-month trial. The images created by the scanners are so clear and detailed that some people think they are the equivalent to a virtual strip-search, revealing everything under your clothes from genitalia to breast implants. Britain's Protection of Children Act states that it is an offense "to take, or permit to be taken, any indecent photograph of a child." The law was modified in 1994 to include digital images.

While the definition of "indecent" is open for interpretation, Alisdair Gillespie, an expert on laws relating to indecent images at Leicester's De Montfort University, told Sky News that nude images taken by the scanner might legally be considered indecent, despite not being overtly sexual. "If this machine can produce an image of a child's genitals then there is a theoretical possibility that it might be classed as indecent."

What happens to the images after they have been viewed is also a thorny issue. According to the Guardian, the images are scrutinized by security personnel at a remote location and then they are immediately deleted. But critics fret that images of passengers with, say, unusual body profiles or physical oddities would prove too difficult for some employees to resist sharing in some way. And with today's technology, an image could be distributed around the world in seconds with a click of a digital phone camera and an upload onto Youtube. So, too, could pictures of naked children be sold or shared on pornographic websites.

"How do you guarantee that the staff in the airports do not sell these images?" asks Anmar Alani, a parent of three children who is senior vice president at technology consultancy SalesLab. "The risk is that a lot of mistakes are made, and how do we guarantee they don't get bribed if they're offered good money."

Playing It Safe Isn't Exactly a Safe Move

Given the the legal complications, the scanners are currently only being used on passengers over the age of 18. Meanwhile, the government is advocating the installation of more machines. "Now that the Government has given the go-ahead, we will introduce full-body scanners as soon as practical," the British Airports Authority has announced.

While exempting children from being scanned might sound like a good way to avoid conflict with the letter of the law, Israeli security expert Dror Mor, founder of Sdema Group, which specializes in homeland security, told DailyFinance the move may unintentionally exacerbate the threat of terrorism. "If it's known that any particular group is not submitted to a security procedure, that group actually becomes a distinct threat ," says Mor, "because they are then targets for terrorists to hide explosives on them."

Some have questioned whether these full-body scanners would even have detected the explosive hidden in the underwear of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab when he attempted to blow up a plane at the Detroit airport on Christmas day. But Mor, the Israeli security expert, says the machines would have picked up the material if there was enough of it. "Body screening using active infra-red is very effective, but is not a silver bullet," he says, adding that screening technology is only as effective as the person who is interpreting the information that the machine provides.

Security expert and president of Clarity Advisors Dov Hoch adds that proper screening measures employed much earlier in the travel process would eliminate the need to scan young children. He says consulates should more rigorously screen travelers during the visa application process. "Focusing on the threat through profiling lets you spend more time screening high-potential terrorists rather than the grandmothers," he says. "Profiling of threats should be intense in the consulate when the visa is issued – not during the bustle and rush to get through an airport."

Vigilant background checks may lack a certain high-tech panache, but in the world of counter-terrorism, they might prove almost as powerful as X-ray vision.
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