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Use of Full-Body Scanners
Today, the increase in terrorist attacks and terrorist-related activities is one of the major concerns for most of the governments and nations across the globe. Various countries have developed new strategies and measures to curb and curtail terrorism. In the United States of America, for instance, various security agencies were merged in 2003 after the September 11 attacks to form the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in attempts to improve national security. Homeland security refers to efforts by the federal government of the United States of America to prevent, control, and manage terrorists' attacks in the country. Homeland security also aims at reducing the vulnerability and exposure of the United States to terrorist attacks. The missions and strategic goals for homeland security are developed, implemented, and overseen by the United States Department of Homeland Security which was formed in 2003 after a severe terrorist attack that took place on September 11, 2001, at the World Trade Center, and left over three thousand people dead and more than six thousand others serious injured.
In the recent past, the United States Department of Homeland Security has been facing challenges in its efforts to ensure national security, the latest challenge being the use of full-body scanners at airports. Purpura asserts that the planners of homeland security face fundamental problems in the prevention, control and management of security threats and terrorist attacks that may destabilize safety and security of the people of America. There are thousands of dedicated terrorists who work day and night on finding new ways of attacking their target individuals or nations. The terrorists, in collaboration with their leaders and rogue intelligence agencies, are working day and night to develop new ways of defeating the best defense systems put in place by security agencies in most countries.
Due to increase in terrorist attacks, security agencies and law enforcement officers have also been working tirelessly to develop ways of preventing, controlling and managing potential terrorist attacks. One of the measures that were taken by the United States Department of Homeland Security was the introduction of full-body scanners at the main entrances of major airports across the United States. In mid-2000s, the United States Department of Homeland Security announced that it would start using full-body scanners at major transport terminals especially at airports as a way of preventing potential terrorists from entering the country. The full-body scanners replaced metal detectors that were used for screening passengers. A full-body scanner is a screening device that is used for detecting objects on the body of an individual for security purposes. A full-body scanner does not require an individual to remove his or her clothes during the screening process. In addition, the use of full-body scanner does not require physical contacts between the individual being screened and security personnel. Full-body scanners use wavelengths to produce the image of the individual undergoing screening as a naked person. Some of the full-body scanners display a cartoon-like representation of the individual undergoing screening. They have indicators which show the parts of the body where a suspected weapon would be located or placed. The image of the person or cartoon-like representation of the person being screened is usually displayed in a screen hidden in a different room for privacy purposes. At the entrance of an airport, passengers passing through full-body scanners as well as the public are not able to see the images produced by the scanners.
During the introduction of the full-body scanners, the United States Department of Homeland Security stated that the main reason for using the full-body scanners is because full-body scanners are able to detect both metallic and non-metallic objects. It was done to eliminate changes of terrorists passing with non-metal explosives which could be detected by metal detectors. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security also argues that full-body scanners are faster and quick to use, hence, help save time and congestion at the airports. It is approximated that full-body scanners take only five seconds to scan the entire body of an individual. In addition, it does not require an individual to remove his/her clothes during the screening. When a suspicious object has been detected by the full-body scanner, a pat-down search is usually conducted on the individual to remove the detected object.
The introduction of full-body scanners by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security received mixed gestures. Some of the people supported the move while others opposed it. For example, Phillip Purpura states that the use of full-body scanners that use backscatter X-ray has received strong criticisms and condemnations by individuals, health professionals, and human rights advocates basing their arguments on privacy and health issues.
First and foremost, people who have been subjected to screening using full-body scanners have argued that their right to privacy is violated whenever images of their naked bodies are produced by the scanning machines and seen by security agents. Human rights advocates also argue that production of naked images during screening at the airports and train stations using full-body scanners violates basic human rights of the passengers.
Secondly, health professionals have opposed the use of full-body scanners that use backscatter X-ray machines which produce radiations by asserting that the machines are increasing the risk of cancer infection in the country. It is because full-body scanners use backscatters X-ray machines which use ionizing electromagnetic radiation to produce images of the person. The radiation rays produced by these full-body scanners can increase the risk of cancer considerably among the people. However, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) with support from the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRPM) and the American College of Radiation (ACR) disapproved these claims by asserting that there is no solid evidence that has been obtained linking radiation from full-body scanners with cancer. The three institutions unanimously asserted that the amount of radiation produced by full-body scanners is very low. Moreover, DHS, NCRPM, and ACR assert that the radiation is non-ionizing and generally safe for living things. According to the U.S. department of homeland security, the radiations produced by full-body scanners are comparable to radiations produced by natural sources, hence, does not pose any considerable risk to the health of individuals. On the other hand, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) advised that full-body scanners with backscatter X-ray should not be used on expectant women and children. Opponents of full-body scanners producing radiations argued that there is no long-term scientific study that has been conducted to prove that the equipments are safe and cannot do harm to human beings. To support this claim, researchers of radiology form Columbia University emphasized that the radiations produced by full-body scanners are more than twenty times stronger than the level reported by the department of homeland security, hence, it puts passengers at risk of contracting cancer. This claim was also supported by researchers from the Universities of California and San Francisco, who claimed that the actual strength of radiation produced full-body scanners is stronger than the level reported by the department of homeland security.
Thirdly, opponents of full-body scanners argue that the machines are ineffective and do not guarantee complete detection of weapons. For example, Philip Purpura argues that a terrorist can easily fool the machine during screening and pass with a thin film of explosives without being detected. In mid-April 2012, Jonathan Corbett released a video showing an interview with a senior screener at the Transport Security Administration who claimed that some of the full-body scanners were not able to detect certain firearms and explosives during internal testing. Earlier in 2011, an agent of the Transport Security Administration was also able to pass with a handgun through full-body scanners several times without the weapon being detected during a testing process. Thus, the effectiveness of full-body scanners was put into doubt.
The use of full-body scanners at airports has also received criticisms from the U.S. Congress who voted overwhelmingly for the removal of the machines from the airports. The U.S. Congress passed a bill which required the Transportation Security Administration to upgrade the software used for imaging passengers during screening. Also, the U.S. Congress recommended that full-body scanners should be used only as secondary screening methods.
Although the Transportation Security Administration has decided to remove all full-body scanners using backscatter X-ray machines and to replace them with scanners using a special software called Automated Target Recognition (ATR) during screening processes at the airports, the use of the full-body scanners still remains a mystery to both security agents and the public.
Although the withdrawal of full-body scanners is seen by proponents of the machines and security agents as a major drawback to homeland security, most of the opponents of full-body scanners believe that the devices were dangerous and posed great risks to the health of people. Moreover, opponents of full-body scanners especially human rights advocates and some health professionals affirm that security agents can use other screening methods such as metal detectors and pat-down searches as primary methods of preventing the entry of weapons into the country. Similarly, question querying the effectiveness of full-body scanners in preventing terrorist attacks and related crimes in the United States also remain unanswered. Therefore, I would recommend that further research should be conducted to find out the impact of using full-body scanners in preventing terrorism and the effects of the machines on people.