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'See through clothes' scanner gets outing at Heathrow

Oh, that is a gun in your pocket...

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A security scanner that sees through clothes and produces a nude image of passengers has made its debut in a trial at Heathrow Terminal 4, according to a report in the Sunday Times. And was it just the other week we we were saying, "We'll save what happens when people learn these have gone in at an airport for another day"? Yes it was, and that other day has dawned.

It's not clear who the supplier of the Heathrow trial machine is, but it could well be a Rapiscan Secure 1000, which uses a low-energy x-ray beam together with its reflection, or "backscatter", together with imaging software to build a mono picture of the subject's body, complete with guns, knives etc, but not with clothes. The machine has been piloted at a number of airports worldwide, and the Metropolitan Police owns a couple, which have been involved in mobile gun-detecting outings and which have been offered for use in schools in order to detect weapons. The Met has not, as far as we know, adequately explained why it's a good idea to bombard children regularly with "harmless" x-rays, nor how it resolves peering at pictures of unclothed children with its enforcement of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. Spyblog, however, has some constructive discussion of these issues here.

Aside from the backscatter x-ray machines, there's also QinetiQ's millimetre wave scanning, which has been tested at Eurotunnel Calais, and at Gatwick Airport. Oh, yes it has - "QinetiQ conducted a trial of a prototype imager at Gatwick airport in 2002, with favourable response from both passengers and operating staff", it says here. Note the picture of the naked robowarrior - we'll get back to that. QinetiQ is also building MMW systems for the Met.

Despite the alleged enthusiasm of the good transiters of Gatwick for nude scanning, we very much doubt the general public will, if you'll pardon the expression, wear this. Not that this necessarily matters, but we think it's significant that there has not been any dramatic uptake of this variety of scanner in airports, despite backscanning having been available, and used for baggage screening, for quite some time. Trials in Orlando, covered here and here, didn't lead to a deployment, although the TSA is still trying.

You'll note that the picture in the second link shows Susan Hallowell baring her all in the name of security, and displaying her concealed hardware. But rewind - why is she packing? The only metal detectors currently deployed at airports that aren't going to find a rod that size are surely ones that aren't switched on. And if that's a jacket pocket she's been carrying it in, then the airports we're familiar with these days would have that jacket going through the hand baggage scanner. As indeed would they have the QinetiQ guy's handily-placed newspaper.

Frankly, from the terrorist's perspective it makes a heap of a lot more sense to put your pistols, knives and bombs into your hand baggage these days, because they stand a lot better chance of escaping detection than they would when carried by a person with no bags and no jacket. At airports specifically, naked scanners look very much like a solution in search of a problem, and just about the only exhibit trotted out in their favour is 'shoe-bomber Richard Reid', whose cunning plan the Rapiscan 1000 would allegedly have detected. One could however observe that if Reid had wanted to get a bomb that probably wouldn't work through airport security, his hand baggage would still have been a smarter and more comfortable place to put it. Baggage scanning in general remains one of the biggest holes in airline security, and as the number of passengers carrying electronic equipment rises, it'll get worse for as long as the scanners can't adequately figure out what hard objects are, and what they contain.

Uptake of naked scanning seems to have been greater in areas where the subjects aren't likely to, or can't, complain. So they could be sold to prison services, in high-security scenarios where there isn't going to be a handy baggage scan conduit through security, and as mobile scanners for police forces. As they're being tentatively applied by the Met (early Rapiscan outing here), they're used in scenarios where an area or venue is cordoned off and the people inside searched for hardware. If the targeting is right (from the Met's point of view, we should stress) then the raid will kick up concealed weaponry, drugs and the odd gun, but the number of venues in the UK where the clientele is heavily armed is surely fairly limited, and more widespread use would look a lot like the fishing expeditions that David Blunkett tells us the police does not engage in.

Plus, the legality of heisting a whole pub and strip-searching it is, to say the least, dubious. Fortunately we in the UK have organisations to defend us against the erosion of our freedoms, and if you look here, down at the bottom, you will read Barry Hugill of Liberty fearlessly commenting: "It is difficult to see a problem with technology that can actually locate guns and can help protect both police officers and the public from harm." Morning, Barry, nice nap?

Presuming Liberty does rouse itself and the counter-productive nature of scanner-equipped area stop and search becomes clear to the security services, there remain other applications they can still get interested in. How about scenarios where the people you're scanning don't have to know you're doing so? We'll leave you with this interesting concept, the Backscatter Drive-By Screening System. This you'll note is in use by the US Department of Homeland Security and "allows one or two operators to conduct x-ray imaging of suspect vehicles as they pass by... The system is unobtrusive, as it maintains the outward appearance of an ordinary van." And here you can see some examples of its photography. ®

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