Terrorists or passengers exposed? MEPs voice doubts on body scanners

Doubts over the merits of body scanners at Europe's airports were aired when MEPs discussed the issue on Wednesday (27 January). In the wake of the Detroit "underpants" bomber, the devices have been touted as effective deterrents. Thus far, the Netherlands, Britain and Italy have said they may use them on US bound flights. The EU's anti-terror Tsar, Gilles de Kerchove, told MEPs in the Civil Liberties Committee that they should be used if they are "privacy friendly and health friendly".

The day also saw the Transport Committee discuss the issue with its Chair, British Member Brian Simpson (S&D) saying "we want to make travel as safe as humanly possible but people who believe that body scanners are the answer live in cloud cuckoo land".

The debate comes prior to a debate on the issue on 10 February during the Strasbourg plenary session. The European Commission is currently working on proposed EU-wide legislation on the issue. Wednesday saw two separate committees  of the parliament - Civil Liberties and Transport -discussing separate aspects of the issue.

Since the attack was foiled the scanners, which use millimetre-wave technology that reveal the naked image of a passenger, have been put forward as a way of detecting explosive devices that are not picked up by metal detectors – like those containing liquids, chemicals or plastic explosive.

"Will we have to check in 3 hours before?"

However, doubts were voiced by many MEPs on Wednesday about whether a scanner would actually have made any difference to whether the bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, would have been detected.

British MEP Philip Bradbourn (ECR) told the Transport Committee: "The US President openly attributed the incidents which took place on December 25 last year to a systemic failure on the part of the US Intelligence Services".

In addition concerns were raised about the cost of ordering them (at approximately €115,000 each), and of all the changes that would have to be made to airports. "Will we have to check in 3 hours before?" asked Maltese member Simon Busuttil (EPP).

On top of this are the civil liberty aspects concerning passengers appearing naked - many MEPs were deeply concerned about this aspect.

De Kerchove - more research needed

Gilles de Kerchove told the Civil Liberties meeting that €200 million had been allocated from the EU 7th research framework programme for research into aviation security and, in particular, these kind of measures. He said that more research was needed on body scanners.

However, the technology route did not convince all MEPs on the Civil Liberties Committee. German MEP Alexander Alvaro (ALDE) said "I have the impression that technology has become the new religion in counter-terrorism. That's not the way."

Feats have been voiced that materials with a low density, such as powder, liquid or thin plastic and clothing millimetre waves could pass through and the object would not be shown. High density objects like knives and guns reflect the millimetre waves and leave an image.

"Watch lists" and tackling radicalisation part of wider picture

The approach de Kerchove set out to MEPs was that the EU and the US now needed to start sharing the terrorist "watch lists" to better coordinate their response. However, he acknowledged the civil liberties and legal obstacles that still need to be overcome.

He was also worried about the radicalisation of Americans and Europeans going to countries like Yemen and returning as part of what he termed an "Al-Quaeda regional franchise".

Source EU Parliament