Peeping Toms in Amsterdam

Peeping Toms in Amsterdam

Travelling by plane is getting a bigger nuisance each year. Airports accepting more flights and passengers than they can logistically handle and excessive and repeated security checks causing long waiting lines and missed flights. The sight (and personal feeling) of passengers being shooed through check points by shouting security personnel reminds me of a cattle drive.

When taking off shoes and belts for x-raying became common practise I had half-jokingly predicted that soon one would have to walk through checks completely naked. Little did I know that makers of security devices and airports had already been working on that. Just recently discussions in the EU Commission made the news as so called see-through scanners were being considered for all EU airports. Given the severe invasion of privacy by looking at every passenger effectively naked there were quite some protests and the Commission had put their plans on hold. At least for now.

I was reminded of this topic when passing through a check point at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport yesterday. The gate looked different to what I have seen before and the need to be locked in, turn sideways and stand still with hands raised was obviously odd. With my hand luggage and belt already being sucked into the x-ray machine and my plane home departing soon I saw no alternative than passing through the humiliating check as well. Curious to what this was about I asked the personnel whether this was one of the devices under current discussion and likely to be banned. Got quite an enraged answer back questioning whether I would seriously believe to find anything illegal in use at an international airport.

I looked at the monitor the operating crew was using while the next person passed the check. Didn’t see any offending picture there so I put this off as regular yes/no scanner looking for metal or other
potentially dangerous material. A day later I looked this topic up on the Net and learnt that it is actually old news. Schiphol has been using two see-through scanners for over a year now and Australian and US airports have introduced them recently, too. Images are being inspected in a remote room which is why I did not see any. Officials claim there have been few complaints but do passengers really know what is done with them? In case there was any warning sign it must have been too small or hidden. A sample picture of a scanned person would do a good job I think. EU Commissioners have stated that one cannot be forced to by checked by such scanners but I cannot confirm the right to opt out. When the personnel upon questioning did not tell me about my right to have a regular check in another line this makes my wonder about their fidelity or training.

Now I don’t think that the examining officers get a big thrill from watching thousand of pictures of naked people every day. Possibly quite the opposite. One can easily imagine stupid comments being made, though. What remains is the overstepping of a line of privacy for every passenger without any concrete suspicion. And all this for a false sense of security. Scientist Peter Siegel has pointed out[1] that rubber or any other skin-like material still allows for hiding things. And anyone wishing something evil happening to airplane passengers will find it much easier to smuggle in things through hand
baggage, bribing underpaid airport personnel or using a rocket launcher on the ground. The number of possible attacks to human life is in fact so big that there is no way to protect against all of them. And governments are doing nothing but protect against weaknesses exploited in the past. The next evildoer (number unknown, certainly small compared to the world’s population) will just chose another option as can be seen from the recent attack in Mumbai has shown. Meanwhile we are ruining everyone’s freedom and every day life and effectively making “them” win already.

I found a good posting by security expert Bruce Schneier that talks about these problems[2]. He assesses a “diminished return of investment”. The picture that this Independent article[3] paints for
2011 has mostly become true already.

[1] http://www.usatoday.com/printedition/news/20080606/a_bodyscan06.art.htm
[2] http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2006/03/airport_passeng.html
[3] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/flying-with-fear-the-future-of-air-security-412643.html