The latest distraction in the airport security circus came to town this morning with the launch of a three week trial of a G rated full body scanner at Sydney’s international terminal.

The Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Anthony Albanese, even took a gratuitous dose of trivial levels of radiation just for the cameras, which were spared images of his genitals and body cavities because the government has chosen the abstracted option in which symbols are flashed up indicating bombs, drugs, knives, rocket propelled grenades and guns instead of everything being flashed.

The three week optional trial will be followed by another at Melbourne’s Tullamarine airport, after which the public pockets will have been picked to the tune of $6 million.

But this is a complete farce. What happens if someone is detected loaded up with explosives or devices that can be triggered in an instant? Do we get a second or so to dive for cover while the loudspeakers shout ‘Run for your lives’?

The moment the latest toy finds an underpants or shoe bomber is the moment the entire absurd circus fails and goes deadly. Then again, the media was told at Sydney Airport that the scans would only be made if the standard metal detectors  go off, which implies that for the time being drugs and plastic explosives get a free pass anyhow.

The system also fails the logic test by being located at the landside/airside divide.

Why would a terrorist go to the trouble of buying an airline ticket when anyone can enter the crowded landside areas, or pass through the security screen, where people congregate, into the shopping malls that surround the boarding gates?

If there was a genuine and totally rational effort being made to secure our airports the screening would occur before passengers board the coaches or trains to a terminal, or at the car park entrances, and of course, the retail trade on which airports depend would collapse.

Airport security is dishonest tokenism, and the merit of detecting drugs ultimately means driving that trade into the cargo containers that governments and shippers world wide have agreed are too hard and costly to universally scan.

Dishonest too is the reliance on low one off radiation effects being of no health consequence.  Provided the scanning equipment is constantly monitored for accurate calibration and dosage, it is true the problem in isolation is trivial.

However if you regularly fly, and happen to have dental X-rays several times a year, and the odd MRI scan, or work at an airport and pass through the scanners every time you cross the airside/landside divide, then these trivial exposures begin to add up.

And if security madness spreads to shopping malls, restaurants, pubs, and sporting arenas as the cost of the scanning devices falls, the population at large could be subject to many such scans every day, and trivial exposure levels become cumulative damage, on a much more significant scale.

These are unpleasant realities. They need to be addressed. Most likely, they involve the effective use of community policing and intelligence gathering, and an  acceptance that for the degree of freedom of mobility that we have, there is a risk that cannot be removed.

We need to be honest, and alert and sensible.  We don’t need to be irradiated, nor deluded by security circuses.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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