Body scans on USA tours – is border control technology getting out of hand?

Technology is being continually integrated into airport security and border control in order to make things safer, quicker and more efficient. There have been a number of new systems installed over the past three years, including finger print scanners, iris scanners and E-Passport gates in the UK. Brits embarking on USA tours may also be asked to pass through body scanners, which essentially perform a digital ‘strip-search’. There have been problems with some of these technologies, however, and complaints about their efficiency and necessity. The UK Border Agency states that it ‘remains committed to the use of technology and automation at border control’, but at what cost?

Iris scanners were introduced to several UK airports in 2004. The technology, IRIS, is based on the idea that everybody’s iris is unique, and that scanners can therefore detect patterns in a passenger’s eye and compare them to images stored on a database. If the pattern matches a database image then the passenger can immediately enter the UK without having to bother with manual passport control. Sounds great, right? This should be a time saving, state-of-the-art piece of technology that allows incoming passengers to move through customs quickly. The scanners, however, have recently been scrapped at Manchester and Birmingham because they proved to be taking significantly longer than manual passport checks. Although they are still in place at Heathrow and Gatwick, they will only continue to operate until after the 2012 Olympics despite the £9 million that has been spent on the project.

E Passport gates, another time saving airport technology, seem to be working well. Passengers with a chipped passport can use these gates to enter the UK quickly. Facial recognition technology is used, which compares the passenger’s face to that on the passport chip. The gates then open automatically once the checks have been made. All the major airports, including Gatwick, Heathrow and Manchester have this system in place, and so far it seems to be working well. Such systems are efficient and quick without being overly invasive.

Body Scanners, however, have been causing a stir in the USA after complaints were made to the Transportation Security Administration by female passengers, stating that they had been scanned due to their appearance rather than for legitimate security reasons. The scanners were also dropped from Heathrow after complains about privacy issues, as the scanner screens essentially strip the clothes off passengers to check for items concealed beneath, showing an image of the ‘naked’ body.

Europe banned similar ‘strip-search’ scanners due to worries about possible health risks, as the scanners emit low levels of radiation. The EU have advised that they should not be installed until the risks have been properly assessed, so British airports are not likely to see a widespread use of these until both issues have been resolved.

Written by Sophie McGovern