Typical image produced by using the millimeter wave screening technology employed by full-body scanners at Canadian airports. Unlike some scanners in use in the United States, which rely on backscatter radiation that actually penetrates the skin, the technology used here emits waves that bounce off the body, which means the scanners are unable to see inside body cavities. — Image courtesy of the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority
“Whenever we safely land in a plane, we promise God a little something.”
— Mignon McLaughlin (1913-1983), American journalist and author, from
“The Neurotic’s Notebook”
I made my first trip on an airplane 30 years ago — 15 years old, all on my own, and as excited as all-get-out to see what the clouds really looked like from up in the sky.
It was a perfect sunny, summer’s day, and the flight to Halifax was as uneventful as all good flights should be. I spent the short trip admiring the poise and elegance of the airline stewardesses — as they were then called — and furtively smoking cigarettes to combat my nervous excitement, stubbing them out in the metal arm-rest ashtray.
How times have changed.
You can no longer smoke on planes, of course, and I no longer smoke, at any rate.
Airline stewardesses and air hostesses are now called flight attendants, and while they still have poise and elegance, there’s stress there, too.
Same goes for the passengers. I no longer wish anyone a good flight, but a safe one. They have become synonymous.
And it’s sad that most of our children can’t remember a time when plane trips weren’t fraught with a certain amount of anxiety.
But I can. I remember a time when the only two things you worried about midflight were mechanical problems or turbulence. OK, and perhaps ice on the wings in winter, but that was it.
You knew there was a hijacking in Canada, back in 1971, but they were rare. (In a strange twist, CBC News reported on Sept. 11, 2001 — an hour or so before air travel as we knew it would be changed forever — that a suspect in the ’71 case had finally been tracked down and arrested in New York.)
The big airplane bombings — Air India, Lockerbie — had not happened yet.
And you could not even conceive that someone would actually try to crash a plane that they were on, killing themselves and everyone else.
Those were kinder, gentler times for travellers, when the phrase “suicide bomber” was not part of the everyday lexicon.
Frisk or scan?
Which brings us to today’s controversy about stepped-up security measures at airports.
In the United States, some people are protesting the probing patdowns they’re being subjected to before heading to the departure gate. In this country, some folks don’t like the idea of passing through full-body scanners, calling it humiliating and an invasion of privacy.
Canada’s privacy commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, has waded into the issue, acknowledging in a commentary piece she wrote this month that, “Privacy advocates in Canada and around the world … have expressed concerns about the scanners. The European Parliament, for example, has directed that a formal study be undertaken into potential health and privacy risks of the technology.”
Opponents of the technology worry that scanner technicians will indulge in high-tech ogling, or that copies of their body scans and identifying information will be illicitly distributed.
But the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA), which provides air security services, says it has taken measures to address those concerns.
The technician won’t be able to see who is passing through the phone-booth-sized scanner at any particular time, and the person’s body image will not be labelled with any identifying information. The images will be deleted once they’ve been viewed and they can’t be stored, copied or transmitted. The scan lasts all of five seconds and poses no health risks, even from repeated exposures, according to Health Canada.
What the images can do is efficiently detect “metallic and non-metallic threats, including weapons, explosives and other items that a traveller may be carrying on his/her person,” according to CATSA’s website.
And that’s reassuring.
As the privacy commissioner noted, “The government has advised us formally that it has credible evidence from intelligence sources that non-metallic threats could endanger travellers through Canadian airports, and that these machines will help detect the threats.”
Still, Stoddart urges CATSA to “continue to consider the privacy implications of the technology, and to explore options to further minimize privacy risks for travellers.”
I’m all for personal privacy, but in this case I think it’s trumped by public safety.
In fact, I would take full body scanning one step further.
We don’t have them in St. John’s yet because the airport authority is working closely with CATSA to resolve a space-crunch issue, but Deer Lake is getting a scanner in March.
CATSA spokesman Mathieu Larocque told The Telegram there are currently 41 full-body scanners in use at 17 Canadian airports. But they are not used on every passenger. Instead, they’re for secondary screening only. Once you’ve passed through the metal detector, you can be asked to undergo a physical search or a full-body scan. Which means that even if you’ve been scanned, not all of your fellow passengers will have been, and where’s the reassurance in that?
Frankly, the body scanners sound a lot less invasive — physically, if not visually — than the patdowns; I’d rather be scanned by a machine then frisked by a stranger.
I think scans should be mandatory for all passengers and crew, and I welcome the day when St. John’s International Airport has full-body scanners of its own.
As we all saw in Moscow this week, security threats aren’t limited to planes — terrorists are blowing up innocent people at the arrival gates, the crowded public sections of airports.
The tightest security in the world can’t always prevent violence in public places.
But we can at least use every tool at our disposal to make planes safe for people.
And acknowledge that after 9/11, there’s no going back to the innocent days when we flew the friendly skies.
Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s story editor. She can be reached by email at email@example.com.