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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.


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 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.

  11. gerard

    I would rather get scanned, then someone poking around and between my conjugal equipment. Nothing explosive in my underwear either. No smelling hypocrisy roaming around, please!

  12. Perry Gretton

    If they detected what they’re supposed to detect, they might have some value, but they don’t. It’s a farce.

  13. DF

    Jimmy – it wasn’t Hockey who said $70 billion over 4 years was small change in an annual budget of $400 billion, it was that smug, matronising, self-promoting Judith Sloan, the female equivalent of Peter Reith.

    Meski – I’m Caucasian with grey hair, as befits my years, and I get hauled aside for the explosive test more times than not, regardless of whether I make eye contact (supposedly the means by which one can avoid them). I was done in both Brisbane (domestic) and Sydney (international) on the same day last year. Considering the wages the inspectors are paid, I regard it as an enhanced work-for-the-dole scheme.

  14. Suzanne Blake


    what did you expect? No cost benefit on the estimated $50 billion + NBN spend either.

    Why any cost benefit on this. Especially Albanese

  15. Jimmy

    DF – You are right but as Hockey was going “Yep, that’s right” in the background I took the liberty of assuming he agreed.

    Hockey’s answer on IR reform was very telling also.

  16. Sonny Wright

    Fair dinkum at times I wonder from what planet many of you commentators originate. 200 to 500 passengers in a fragile $300 million plane make for a easy target and statement for those religeous fanatics and lunatic fringe dwellers who seek to impose their will and ideologies on others. I am no apologist for Gillards dunces who couldn’t manage a drunk up in a brewery but as a regular flyer who sports an artifical knee give me the scanner anytime to speed security checks and increase flying confidence.

  17. zut alors

    @Neo, I’m WASP in appearance and wear formal business attire whenever flying. On domestic travel I am subjected to the explosives test approximately two times out of three.

    I have a theory the security staff have a daily pax quota to check and use me to fill up the numbers.

  18. DF

    Jimmy – Hockey’s performance overall was appalling – he just raises the volume when he is trying to make his point, rather like an Englishman attempting to make himself understood on the Continent.

  19. Meski

    @SB: If you’re going to get it wrong, why not be outright absurd, and call it a trillion?

  20. Suzanne Blake

    @ Meski

    The latest NBN estimate exceeds $50 billion. $53 billion is the one being bandied around in the media.

    Meski is it higher now? Sorry have not heard if it is.

  21. Meski

    The NBN business plan, released yesterday, revealed the Government’s ambitious network would cost $36 billion, with taxpayers contributing $27.5 billion that will eventually be refunded.

    However, the NBN will borrow a further $13.4 billion from financial markets, beginning in 2015. The network will be completed by the end of 2020 – later than first expected. It is already being rolled out in NSW.

    That’s from the SMH, as stridulent a Tony Abbott mouthpiece as you could hope to find.

  22. gerard

    Even so, let’s be united in kindness. The buffoonery of Hockey is so much more honest than the T.Abbott’s fish filleting nonsense. ” The Emperor New Clothes” getting a bit smelly.
    Penny Wong…… a future world’s first gay PM?

  23. Jimmy

    Gerard – “he buffoonery of Hockey is so much more honest than the T.Abbott’s fish filleting nonsense” Honest yes, less dangerous no.

    Meski – Even Hockey used the $27b figure in a perculiar response to the coalitions non existant IR policy last night but don’t get involved with SB, I gave up responding to her recently and it is sooo much better.

  24. Jimmy

    Gerard – “he buffoonery of Hockey is so much more honest than the T.Abbott’s fish filleting nonsense” Honest yes, less dangerous no.

    Meski – Even Hockey used the $27b figure in a strange response to the coalitions non existant IR policy last night but don’t get involved with SB, I gave up responding to her recently and it is sooo much better.

    Moderator – Other words hav l & i together you know?!

  25. DF

    Gerard – Unfortunately Senator Wong is in the wrong house (which is not a euphimistic allusion to her personal life) but if the Penny dropped (like Gorton) it would be a bonus for Australia.

  26. DF

    Gerard – Iceland’s PM, Johanna Siguroardottir is in a same sex marriage.

  27. Queensberry Rules

    Airport scanning is a prelude to the even greater issue of identity conditioning. The biometric cataloging of the human race has begun. India’s intent to record it’s entire nations’ 1.2 billion people by iris and fingerprint scans signals a devious high tech human monitoring and control agenda.


  28. Felix Dance

    I think you’ll find that the linked article only says the deaths from roads rivaled the numbers from the attack themselves. In fact, “In total, our results suggest that at least 1,200 additional driving deaths are attributable to the effect of 9/11.” Much less than the 3000 or so people who died in the attacks.

  29. Peter Bayley

    I don’t understand. Large American Corporation ripping off “friendly” Government – what’s new?

  30. michael crook

    On the subject of security corporations, this is certainly cause for concern. We now have a “security” industry which matches the size of the “war on drugs” industry, and both are completely pointless. In fact they are their own justification for their own existence. ie because there is security industry there must be a security threat. The awarding of contracts often with no acknowledgement of Australian Standard conditions of tendering, is also a major cause for concern. Does CIC stand for the quote made famous by Peter Beattie of “Commercial in Confidence” or does it mean “Corrupt in Company”?

    We have had some very interesting overseas corporate incursions into Australia, not least of which was Serco, whose detention centre contract, if I remember correctly, Kevin Rudd was going to cancel on assuuming office, but which has now grown and grown and also runs many state prisons, among other things.

    The corporate rule of Australia is quite worrying, and as we look to the future it becomes obvious that the agendas being followed are not those of agreed ALP policy, but rather something else. Whats next?

  31. gerard


    Indeed. Just shows. There’s hope for all of us now. Ah Iceland, now there is a progressive country.
    Penny in the wrong house? Je ne comprendre pas!

  32. DF

    In Studs Terkel’s book “The Good War”, Book Two (‘The Bombers and the Bombed’), John Kenneth Galbraith, describing how FDR in 1944 came to the conclusion there was a large element of exaggeration and guesswork in what the air force claimed it was accomplishing, said in his interview with Terkel: “The great principle of American war strategy is: We have airplanes, therefore they must be effective”.

  33. DF

    Gerard – It’s the gay thing – “batting for the other side”, “wrong house” etc. In this case the double entendre was a reference was to her being in the Senate, not the Reps. Can’t be PM in the Senate.

  34. zut alors

    @ Michael Crook, how clearly I recall the launch of The War on Drugs back in the mid-80s.

    President Ronald Reagan on a podium facing a vast press phalanx for the PR purpose of introducing Michael Jackson (sporting jewelled glove) as ‘the new ambassador for the War on Drugs’. Somehow it all ended in tears.

  35. gerard


    Ooohh, I understand now. Thank you beaucoup. That makes your reply twice as good.!

  36. The Pav


    What do you think you are doing you naughty thing you!!

    Pointing out yet again to SB how absurd and riduclous she is!! That’s just cruel.

    BTW don’t expect a retraction or apology. That would require character and decency.Not someting we can expect from a Misty Rabbit cheerleader

  37. Gavin Moodie

    I agree with Dale Jackson. Added to the government’s direct expenditure should be the cost of passengers’ time and annoyance, which in my case will be very high.

    I look forward to the Coalition including this in its expenditure savings. I would give bonus points for additional savings from removing the current useless machines.

    Avoidance of the explosive residue test for this ageing white male is all in the timing, as one operator helpfully hinted when I expressed my usual annoyance. As you pick up your gear from the xray machine take a surreptitious glance at the scanners. If they are preoccupied with scanning someone make your escape smartly but not too hurriedly past the scanners. If they are lying in wait like a cop with a radar gun, take care to pack up all your stuff deliberately until another victim is caught, but don’t draw attention to yourself by delaying too much.

  38. Mark from Melbourne

    I’d like someone to explain to me how you do a cost benefit analysis of scanning for potential terrorist. A standard part of any such analysis would have to put a cost on x number of human lives/serious injuries/business disruption which might occur if something happens which might have been prevented by the scanners.

    Good luck with that…

  39. gerard

    And let’s not talk about what scanning does to live sperm. At my age anything still wriggling needs to be looked after and preserved.
    I wonder if there would be any volunteers offering ‘ samples’ of pre and post scanning? (with a suitable rest and cup-a-tea in between)

  40. coreyjames

    Is there any way to determine which (if any) MPs are shareholders in L-3 Communications?

  41. Suzanne Blake

    @ coreyjames

    If they are listed you can ask Exchange for a list of shareholders. They don’t hand the lists out willy nilly these days.

    It should be on the MP’s Parliament declaration as well

  42. Dagney_Taggert

    What a waste of time and money. Why go to the effort of smuggling explosives on board the aircraft when a turrist could just set a backpack bomb off at check in? I don’t know how good the millimeter wave scanners are, but tests have shown that the backscatter x-ray scanners can be fooled by plastic explosive molded to fit the body (instead of being carried as a block).

    Security theater is certainly apt.

  43. AR

    Zut – a decade prior to Raygun & Wacko, it was Nixon who began & named the “War on Drugs and there’s a fine pic of Tricky with a barely vertical Elvis receiving his drug marshal badge to publicise it.
    As to the point of this article, there can be no “cost/benefit” analysis for the simple reason that there has NEVER been a terrorist stopped at any airport security screening, anywhere in the world.
    The sole exception was El Al interception in the 70s which was achieved by intelligence, not hi-tek, hi-cost toys.
    who is the real beneficiary of the government’s decision to impose body-scanning technology on airport users?… the giant American defence contractor that will be the only beneficiary of the scanner scam.
    Wotta surprise, knock my down with a feather. Oddly, all the ion scanners and drug kits used apparently every few minutes, according to the tabloid TV trash Border Security are also US made, Hooda thunk it?

  44. Tank

    ANND then there are those of us who are transgender. Transiting through many international airports, using different scanning equipment, and with different policies, is a nightmare.

    In the US, you might opt for a patdown. With various prostheses in place, it’s the best bet for not having to disclose your medical history. Here in Australia there’s no such option, so you have to go through the machine. On the upside, the machine obscures detailed anatomy. On the down side, that prosthesis you’re wearing is going to get you pinged and sent off to a little room. With an officer who may or may not be appropriately trained. Course you could move the prosthesis to your hand luggage pre-security screening, but then you’ll probably get questions from security when they do your bags, anyway. And, that assumes you know what kind of scanner you’re about to go through, what the rules are, what your options are, and what the best way to approach the particular combination is.

    If you’re really lucky, all of this will come to a head in Canada, where they just introduced a rule to say that if you don’t appear to match the gender on your passport, you won’t be allowed to fly.

    Because, you know, tranny terrorists pose a really serious safety risk to the flying public.

  45. coreyjames

    Suzanne – I appreciate the reply, thanks!

  46. Suzanne Blake


    I meant Share Registry not Exchange.

  47. MaggieP

    I think you people need to look at this, and open your eyes about corrupt Australia and the airports:

    You are being lied to from stem to stern, and always have been.

    It’s 7 years past the time you should have opened your eyes.

  48. GeeWizz

    Looks like the terrorists have already won.

    What happened to a couple of sniffer dogs and some police detective work?

    BTW, has anyone noticed how much security there is to get into the flight areas but then you can pop into the duty free shop and pick up some glass or metal items that could be turned into weapons?

  49. Suzanne Blake

    @ GeeWizz

    Thats nothing. I have done some work airside at Sydney Airport, at night when they are few flights and after 11pm, when there are no flights. Contractors are bringing in large boxes of items, too big to get through the scanners. The friendly and sleep security guards open a few boxes (less than 5%), don’t look too hard (and certainly dont check the bottom of the boxes) and wave them on.

    You could take just about anything you like through.

    You have to see it to believe it.

  50. Son of foro

    [what did you expect?]

    I don’t know about BK, but I expected some action in Parliament!

    [Suzanne Blake
    Posted Thursday, 24 November 2011 at 6:51 pm | Permalink
    You are all missing the point here and its smacking you in the face.
    Why would Jenkins resign today and days ago, when they could have used his vote to push the mining tax through with less concessions to the independants?
    It is because Gillard has been tipped off that the Victorian and NSW Police are about to lay charges in the HSU case, and they cannot take the risk of being one down when they pick a new speaker. The by-election would not be held until after Parliament resumes.]

    [Suzanne Blake
    Posted Friday, 25 November 2011 at 8:16 pm | Permalink
    Labor will be back to a majority of 1 before Parliament reconvenes anyway]

    [Suzanne Blake
    Posted Friday, 27 January 2012 at 9:32 pm | Permalink
    @ Patriot
    As I said the Gillard Media Spin room has 30 minutes to order the pizza from the local for the evening.
    I bet they are shredding records as we speak. Hawker Brittain, Mr Bruce Hawker himself called in to sort this out before the journo start in the morning.
    Its is now almost certain this guarantees Gillard is gone. Unrecoverable.]

    [Yes I was right, majority of 1, (but wrong reason…so far) but could be 0 if the Thompson thing materialises in the next week or so].

  51. Dale Jackson

    As GeeWizz points out it’s obvious that airside is the where the weak point is as far as security goes so I assume that if these machines are so crash hot then ALL airside staff and crew will be going through these – several times a day, every day. Baggage handlers, customs, security, pilots, cleaners etc etc. Not gonna happen….

  52. Suzanne Blake

    @ Son of Foro

    Just about everyone, including ALPers know there has been a go very slow at Fair Work Australia

    Even Kathy Jackson (ALP member and HSU Union National Secretary) says she suspects Federal ALP political interference. How damning is that?

    I guess the powerful ALP machine is more powerful that we thought, as we have seen over the Australia Day Race Riots as well. Cover Ups a speciality.

  53. laura ingalls

    Money which could have been spent on something like…upgrading infrastructure in bulging cities?

  54. Holden Back

    Where did I put my fridge magnet?

  55. Claire Furnish

    I’m opposed to these scanners for many reasons and I’m willing to put my hand up for the O’Brien award for the first person in this thread to mention George Orwell but I had a conversation last night which really put this issue into focus for me.

    My friend is mid-30’s, a very frequent business traveller and has a colostomy bag after surviving bowel cancer. Five minutes research online shows that these scanners will alarm for colostomy bags, all sorts of prostheses and even old school sanitary napkins (fellas they are making a comeback). Is my friend going to be put into the position of demonstrating her medical device to someone, who despite half a days “sensitivity training”, has a problem believing a woman her age has a colostomy bag? She’s talking about leaving Australia for good if this gets up and I can’t say I blame her.

  56. Matt Hardin

    With respect to scanners etc., it should be noted that the box cutters that the September 11 hijackers had were identified before the flight and they were allowed to keep them. The technology is not needed, proper procedures are.

    The sheer unthinking stupidity of it all boggles the mind.

    I have a colleague who had a laser pointer for use in a training course at a remote site that the security people wanted him to give up. He ultimately spoke to the AFP at the airportwho told hiim he could keep the pointer but must surrender the batteries. He was then informed that he could buy new batteries in the airside shop….

    I have had a metal fork confiscated from my backpack and walked straight into the QANTAS club and seen a tray full of metal forks…

    Leaving Port Moresby I was told to put my roll on deodourant into a zip lock plastic bag.I complied and asked the security man how I had made the world safer. He had the grace to smile in an embarassed way and not answer…

    Leaving Perth for Hong Kong I had a nearly empty tube of toothpaste confiscated because “while it currently contained less than the legal amount of fluid and its current volume was small enough, its original volume when full was too large.”.

    Security theatre – stupid and a waste of time.

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