Airport scanning technology is a transparent victory for terrorism


John Naughton
London Guardian
July 16, 2012

Every time I go through airport security nowadays the thought that comes to mind – as I take off my shoes and belt, unpack my laptop and display my toothpaste in a transparent plastic bag – is that Osama bin Laden won hands down. The same thought pops up when taking a photograph outside the London Stock Exchange – or inside an airport or a railway station – and a uniformed jobsworth appears from nowhere to inform me that photography is “not allowed, sir”. And it also comes to mind whenever the home secretary opens her mouth on the subject of the draft communications data bill, aka the snooper’s charter. Terrorism – or the perceived threat of it – has turned democracies into paranoid armed camps in which the state feels justified in assuming that every citizen is a potential terrorist.

The intrusiveness and ubiquity of state surveillance is already shocking. But we ain’t seen nothing yet – the technology is just getting into its stride. The powers that be (to use William Tyndale’s lovely phrase) maintain that the internet is a great boon for criminals, paedophiles, al-Qaida and other miscreants but omit to mention that it’s also an Orwellian tool for them, because everything that one does on the net is logged by internet service providers (ISPs) – and, now, stored for later inspection by the authorities. The details of every Google search conducted, every email or tweet sent, every file downloaded, every YouTube video watched and Skype call made, are recorded – and are available on production of a warrant or court order in law-abiding societies or on the say-so of an intelligence officer in less fastidious jurisdictions.

And that’s just in cyberspace. In the real world of “meatspace” the technology of surveillance is coming along nicely too. In airport security we’ve gone from ancient technology like X-ray scanning of aircraft baggage to the scanners now being deployed in US and other airports which produce fetching images of our unclothed bodies. But at least with this stuff we know when we’re being scanned.

That too is about to change. We’ve now discovered that within the next year or so the US department of homeland security plans to deploy a new laser-based molecular scanner fired from 50 metres away which will instantly reveal an astonishing level of detail not only about your body, clothes and luggage but also about the contents of your wallet and even of your intestines. It’s claimed that the technology can identify traces of drugs on banknotes, gunpowder on your clothes and even what you had for breakfast, the adrenaline level in your body and substances in your urine. And all of this information can be collected without even touching you – and without your knowledge.

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