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Federal

Feb 7, 2012

The $28m pantomime of airport body scanners

Airport body scanners have no demonstrated value, but the government is spending $28 million on them.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

No cost-benefit analysis was conducted before the government’s decision to impose body scanning on international passengers departing the country, the government has revealed.

On Sunday Transport Minister Anthony Albanese announced that a $28 million program to install scanners at international airports would proceed after “a successful trial” at Sydney and Melbourne airports. Passengers selected for scanning who refused would not be permitted to fly, the same policy as applies in Britain (in the US, passengers who refuse have the option of a highly invasive pat-down search).

However, when asked what evaluation of the trial had taken place or whether a cost-benefit analysis was conducted by the Office of Transport Security within the Department of Infrastructure, a spokeswoman for the minister advised that “the decision was made based on accuracy and minimising inconvenience to the travelling public”.

The decision to roll out scanners at the nations airports had its origins in the knee-jerk response to the “underwear bomber” Umar Abdulmutallab during Christmas 2009, when his plan to blow up an airliner using a small quantity of liquid high-explosive failed. A later experiment suggested the aircraft would not have crashed even if the terrorist had succeeded in detonating the explosive he had secreted in his underwear.

However, governments across the world immediately rushed to roll out airport scanning technologies claimed to detect liquids, including the Rudd government, which announced it was introducing scanners and allocated money in the 2010 budget.

X-ray-based scanners are now banned in Europe after serious health risks were identified. The scanners used in Australia are millimetre wave scanners that have no known safety issues. The scanners can also be set to not display anatomical features of the scanned individual and not record scans. There have been several instances overseas of scanner operators keeping images of, ogling or commenting on the anatomy of passengers and co-workers.

But the scanners cannot detect liquids secreted within body cavities, are prone to generating false positives, particularly from perspiration, and suffer the same problems of operator error as other forms of scanning equipment: a US Transportation Security Agency official carrying a firearm was able to pass through a scanner at a US airport. They are also supposed to be coupled with a form of profiling to ensure suspicious passengers are more likely to be scanned than the rest of us; anyone who has travelled within the US will know that in fact they’re used by officials if they don’t like your attitude or simply take a dislike to you.

While the government may not have conducted a cost-benefit analysis, two academics, Mark Stewart of the University of Newcastle, and John Mueller of Ohio State, have done so for scanners used in the US.

Readers will recall Stewart and Mueller wrote an extensive analysis of counter-terrorism spending in the US, showing it was wildly in excess of any conceivable cost-benefit analysis. A year ago they looked in-depth at airport scanners, using similar methods to their analysis of war-on-terror spending. They concluded that the scanners would have to stop 1-3 successful attacks a year that would otherwise not have been thwarted by any other security measure. The assessment was based on assuming a catastrophic disaster resulting from a successful attack — assumptions unlikely to be realistic given the limited capacity of even the most powerful liquid explosives and the poor history of previous efforts.

In short, scanners add little to existing security measures and the attacks they are designed to thwart are unlikely to cause major loss of life (such as downing an airliner), thereby significantly reducing their benefit.

There’s a term for this: security theatre, measures that have no security benefit, or the benefits of which are so specific as to be easily avoided by terrorists, but that give people the illusion of safety. In fact there may well be some specific form of psychological impact from scanning equipment that looks high-tech but achieves nothing — recall that hilarious moment during the swine flu beat-up when Nicola Roxon ordered thermal scanners into airports?

But the illusion comes at a cost — a cost to taxpayers, and a cost in delays to airline passengers (recall that far more people died as a result of increased traffic on US roads after 9/11 than died in terrorist acts). The $28 million being wasted by the government on scanners could be redeployed elsewhere within the transport security budget to greater effect, let alone elsewhere in government. Even a relatively small sum would probably save more lives being redirected to health or road safety than it will ever save from terrorists.

So who is the real beneficiary of the government’s decision to impose body-scanning technology on airport users? Tomorrow we’ll look at the giant American defence contractor that will be the only beneficiary of the scanner scam.

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58 comments

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58 thoughts on “The $28m pantomime of airport body scanners

  1. Chris Tallis

    Don’t worry bernard murdochs minions will be all over this in no time flat.
    Or maybe not.

  2. Wendy Harmer

    Could not agree more. This is absolute garbage. All I thought on hearing this decision was another win for the security industry – from screen doors, to security cameras and radars – it NEVER stops. All is about instilling a false sense of security in an age when we have never been safer. You want danger, read Barbara Tuchman’s ” Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century” and get a bit of perspective. I am utterly appalled. These days it’s not “bread and circuses” that wins hearts and minds , but lockdowns, tasers and prisons. God help us. Wha have we become?

  3. Meski

    It’s all about “We have to be seen to be doing something” rather than “we have to do something useful”

  4. Jimmy

    Before all the usual suspects start banging on about ALP waste it should be noted that according to Joe Hockey last night $70b over 4 years in savings is a drop in the ocean so I assume $28m is probably just spare change you find down the back of the couch. Also I think you would find the libs would be very supportive of this “waste”.

    As for the actual issue, is it really the biggest issue we can be discussing?

  5. Jimmy

    Meski – “It’s all about “We have to be seen to be doing something” rather than “we have to do something useful”” You are right, if these scanners weren’t installed and something did happen the media would be rabid with “the govt let us down, for only $28m we could of had these scanners” whether the scanners were effective or not.

  6. NeoTheFatCat

    Or the more definitive example: “We must do something. This is something. Therefore, we must do this.”

    The only time I have been through one of these scanners was last year, at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. What I appreciated about their set-up is that the security person ‘invites’ you to look at the image at the same time as them, which at least is reassuring (ie. no perving in a back room somewhere).

    My experience of the random explosive residue test is that they are only random if you have white skin. If you have dark skin (like me), then they’re mandatory. And I fully expect the same will apply with these new scanners.

  7. Meski

    @Neo: Not so, I’m white, but seem to get the explosive residue test 95% of the time. Then again, maybe I just fit the profile.

  8. Dale Jackson

    In the UK only a few airports use scanners (and these will be removed shortly) and if you have strong feelings about the issue you can avoid them by choosing your airport of departure. Anyone refusing to be scanned and who is refused flight always has the option of a ferry or the Eurostar. How will Australia deal with a foreign national who refuses the scan? Suggest they take a very long cruise?

    These scanners will slow down the whole process of security and the large number of false positives will produce MORE invasive pat downs not less.

  9. Rena Zurawel

    What worries me mostly is the ‘zero tolerance’ approach. I think the government have gone mad. What about people who cannot possibly be exposed to the radiation? Pregnant women, little babies, people with heart diseases etc.
    An obviously the politicians and business people who have to commute to work, as well as the airport employees.
    But the funny thing is that the silly scanners would NEVER prevent any serious threat. The terrorist attack can come from the land and the sea and from any public or private means of transport .
    The assumption that every terrorist or terrorist organisation are suicidal is very naive, to say the least.
    I smell hypocricy, and predict passengers’ harrasment, and incredible delays in the transport which is meant to carry us quickly to our destination.
    These scanners have absolutely nothing to do with security. It has been proven in the USA and at the Amsterdam airport that they can be switched off any time by anybody.
    And, we can say good bye to our already fragile tourist industry.
    Instead of building a fast train network in Australia and spend the money on job creation within our country we have decided to feed hungry foreign companies? Nanny state for foreigners? How does it work?

  10. zut alors

    ‘Theatre’ is the appropriate word. We are in danger of developing the same condition as the Yanks ie: fear of everything. People can be controlled with fear, it’s a handy tool.

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