EU votes down millimeter wave scanners

Published 24 October 2008

Millimeter wave scanners offer a new level of security at airport checkpoints, but they also offer anatomically correct images of people’s private parts; EU votes against using them

Millimeter wave scanners have been heralded as offering a new level of security at airports, but the technology has just suffered a serious set-back in Europe. EU lawmakers decided Thursday that full-body scanners — those that use millimeter wave technology and which show anatomically correct images of people’s private parts — amount to a virtual strip search, and should not be used at airports’ security check-points. The plan to introduce full-body scanners at airports throughout the EU was voted down by a margin of 361 to 16 with 181 abstentions in the European Parliament Thursday. Saying that the scanners “have a serious impact on the fundamental rights of citizens”, the lawmakers voted on a non-binding resolution asking the bloc’s executive European Commission to carry out an economic, medical and human rights assessment of the impact of using full-body scanners.

Deutsche Welle reports that the Commission proposed last month that the scanners be added to a list of security measures that can be used at airports in the 27-country bloc. The EU Commission says the proposal is meant to harmonize the conditions in which they can be operated. The scanners are already in use at London’s Heathrow and Amsterdam’s Schiphol airports to speed up security checks and to avoid hand-frisking passengers.

The European Parliament resolution does not call for an outright ban on such scanners, but some EU lawmakers, especially from the socialist and Green parties, said they found them unacceptable.

European Commission spokesman Jens Mester disagreed, however, saying that fears concerning the EU executive’s proposal were exaggerated. “The body will indeed be pictured,” he said. “But the quality is more that of a negative of a photograph, it is not a very clear image but sufficient to detect metal things, explosives or strange objects.”

Ahead of the debate, EU Transport Commissioner Antonio Tajani likewise insisted that people would not be forced to go through them. “The body scanner will never be made obligatory. It’s an alternative to hand searches,” he said, adding that the images “would not be recorded and never stored” on a database. He said the machines could help shorten security lines at airports, and that personally he found body searches to be more invasive than the machines. “But everyone is free to choose,” he said.