Scanners, Flying and Privacy

By | Category: Travel rumblings

Over the last few years we have covered the different changes and requirements that have been introduced, ostensibly to make flying safer but which too often seem to make life more difficult and intrusive as well. Only recently there was comment from you about how passing through passport control seemed to take longer because the new passports require matching with computer held data whereas in the old days officers would compare your face with that in the passport. Imagine how much longer it might take if ear prints (supposedly as unique as finger prints) are incorporated as well.
In Italy, the ENAC (the equivalent of our CAA) has decided not to introduce body scanners at any of their airports, not because of privacy or health issues, but because they take longer than manual checks. Apparently they are can give inaccurate readings and are also prone to breaking down. That they tested a number of models and ENAC doesn’t say one machine was better than another seems to suggest the problems are with the way they function.
Over here, the Equality & Human Rights Commission has said that such equipment might violate privacy and anti-discrimination laws. Canada has introduced only one type of machine, one that give out only non-ionising radiation citing health concerns over the other sort. The EU has an initial document which is favour of scanners but any decision making seems a long way off as the first reading in the European parliament isn’t even scheduled until March next year. The bill will generate a lot of comment from MEP’s and this, linked with concerns over the privacy concerns of which government agencies will have access, could keep this tied up in committees for years.
Earlier this year, EPIC (Electronic Privacy Information Center) in the US revealed that it had located images which had been kept as a result of body scanning. (See CD-Traveller 31 August 2010) This is contrary to undertakings given by those agencies so can we trust the US when it says data will be kept confidential?
The newer biometric passports may not be of much help either. The US based National Academy of Sciences has just produced a report edited by Pato & Millett, “Biometric Recognition: Challenges and Opportunities,” saying that the technology underlying biometric recognition is “incredibly complex,” and has a “risk of error” (doesn’t everything? What matters is how much) and the effort required to recognise individuals has “consistently been underestimated.”
Der Spiegel reported last week that the US government is now asking for fingerprints, criminal records and DNA samples in its fight against terrorism. But it also wants all data on travelling passengers and cross border money transactions. Countries unwilling to provide the data are then being told, according to Der Spiegel again, that they may be dropped from the VISA waiver programme. Austria and Germany have agreed to pass the data and the UK has probably done the same although I can’t find written proof of that.
So where does the ordinary traveller stand? Confused is the quick answer. The longer answer is probably that, if you travel, there seems to be little privacy, delays don’t shorten only lengthen and we’ll just have to grin and bear it.

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