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Europe eyes airport X-ray vision

By Chris Mason
BBC News, Strasbourg

x-ray body scanner
The scans effectively strip passengers and highlight anything they may carry

As if queuing for ages, emptying pockets and taking off shoes at the airport was not enough - now there are fears images of European airline passengers will be flashing up on a computer screen in all their glory - minus their clothes.

The European Commission insists the proposals are at an early stage and would not be mandatory.

But there are nonetheless concerns among some in the European Parliament about the effect the scanners could have on human rights, data protection and personal dignity.

The images, while not quite of photo quality, do not leave much to the imagination.

For most people, airport security staff would likely get to know you rather better than you might like.

'Ill conceived'

"This measure is unnecessary, unjustified and invasive," said Irish Sinn Fein MEP Bairbre de Brun.

"The commission has brought forward this plan without assessing the impact on fundamental rights or human health or even if they are cost-efficient. This is an ill-conceived plan."

Tens of millions of people around European airports would be digitally photographed, almost as if they were naked
Marco Cappato, Italian Liberal MEP

The European Commission says it is precisely its role to ensure the scanners are not unnecessarily invasive - by drawing up a rule book for how the devices, which are already used in a limited capacity by some airports, must be operated.

Where the technology is currently available, air security officials can pick out individuals to stand in a booth while three pictures are taken of the person in slightly different positions.

Within seconds, an X-ray scanner produces an image of the body.

What shows up is the naked human form and anything that may be concealed, such as coins, a gun or drugs.

Hi-tech companies say the latest scanners show only an outline of the subject's body, without anatomical detail.

'Virtual strip search'

A European Commission spokesman told the BBC that a wider roll-out of the technology would not only enhance safety and security, but would also have the potential to speed up the check-in process, as passengers would not need to be searched by security officials.

But concerns remain that the safeguards remain vague, and that MEPs have not been sufficiently consulted.

Philip Bradbourn, home affairs spokesman for the British Conservatives, says the scanners amount to a "virtual strip search" and are being rushed in.

airport queue
European officials believe the X-ray scans could ease airport queues
"The European Commission is attempting to introduce these measures without consulting national governments or MEPs, and that is simply unacceptable given the considerable concerns," he said.

"There is a growing anxiety that the EU is seen as a tool for challenging basic liberties, without the usual scrutiny and accountability provided at the ballot box."

He and other critics acknowledge the potential security benefits, but insist that is not enough.

"I am against the idea of deciding one way or the other without a proper analysis of risks and eventual benefits from the point of view of health, privacy and security," Italian Liberal MEP Marco Cappato told the BBC.

"Tens of millions of people around European airports would be digitally photographed, almost as if they were naked."

Step forward Antonio Tajani, Europe's transport commissioner.

He is attempting to persuade MEPs this is not being rushed through, will not happen in every airport anytime soon, and the necessary safeguards will be a priority.

But for many MEPs, he has plenty of convincing to do.



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