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Flying to UK? Be ready for 'naked' search

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  • Published 4.01.10

London, Jan. 3: Those transiting Heathrow airport on their way to the US will have to accept full body scans as the price of air travel, bringing back memories of the humiliation of 1979 when Indian women entering the UK as would-be brides were given “virginity checks”.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown today ordered body scanners to be introduced at British airports as quickly as possible to prevent a recurrence of the near disaster when a young Nigerian attempted to blow up an American airliner with explosives strapped to his thighs.

“Transit passengers will also be checked as well as transfer passengers,” Brown said today.

To go through a body scanner is like being “strip searched”, critics have said, adding that nothing is left to the imagination. It has been reported, however, that Indian intelligence has recommended that body scanners be introduced at airports in India as well.

While Air India uses Heathrow as its hub, Jet Airways passengers transit Brussels for destinations in Europe and beyond. Transit passengers will be made to go through body scanners before catching their connecting flight.

There are security experts who say that the body scanners are not enough and want passenger checks to be made even more intrusive but for the time being in the wake of the Detroit incident, any concerns about privacy are being put to one side.

This is because the Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, began his journey in Nigeria but transited Amsterdam on his way to Detroit. He somehow managed to evade the normal checks by having the explosives hidden beneath his underwear.

Many women — especially Muslim women from many parts of the world — will feel their privacy is being violated, which explains why some technical adjustments may be made to ensure “naked” does not quite mean “naked”. However, the scanners can see through clothes and would be pointless if they couldn’t. But the scanners cannot detect anything hidden inside the body.

A spokesperson for airport operator BAA confirmed: “Now that the government has given the go-ahead, we will introduce full body scanners as soon as practical. It is our view that a combination of technology, intelligence and passenger profiling will help build a more robust defence against the unpredictable and changing nature of the terrorist threat to aviation.”

There are some experts who say passenger profile is a pragmatic and necessary response while others believe picking out passengers with Muslim names such as Khan would do more harm than good.

“First of all, in airports people will see gradually being brought in the use of full body scanners,” said Brown, speaking today on BBC television. “They will see checks for explosives traces that will be done on hand luggage. We will do everything in our power to tighten up on security that is essential. We have recognised that there are now forms of weapons that are being used by al Quida and we have got to respond accordingly.”

The £80,000 full body scanners, which produce “naked” images of passengers, remove the need for “pat down” searches. They work by beaming electromagnetic waves on to passengers while they stand in a booth. A virtual three-dimensional image is then created from the reflected energy.

The machines are currently being tested at Manchester airport following experiments at Heathrow airport from 2004 to 2008. They are also being rolled out across the US, with 40 machines used at 19 airports.

Brown admitted: “We cannot be convinced of the absolute proof of the working at 100 per cent level of any technology, that is absolutely true. We have found that there is a new form of explosive that is not being identified by ordinary machines. We have got to go further.”

He hoped the new arrangement would not cause too much delay for passengers. “It will be introduced gradually. The scanners are already being ordered by the British Airports Authority. We have acted very quickly. We have also got to get back to the source of this and that is Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan. We have got to recognise that we have got a group of young people who have been radicalised as a result of teaching by extreme clerics. And we have got to recognise that we are fighting a battle for hearts and minds as much as anything else.”

It is still unclear whether the scanners can have harmful side effects, for example on pregnant women.

Professor Rolf Michel, the head of the Commission on Radiological Protection which is part of Germany’s environment ministry, warned against any airport scanners that use X-rays on humans.

Long-term exposure could cause cancer, he said. And he also remained concerned about the full-body scanner, which uses radio waves rather than X-rays. “Up until now we have had little information as to whether these could be dangerous. At the moment there is intensive research underway to find out if we need to be worried about biological affects,” he warned.