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Heathrow x-ray weapons scanner, just say no


By John Lettice, 3 Jan 2005

A Register reader passes us an eye-witness account of progress with the see through clothes scanner currently being tested at Heathrow Terminal 4. As one might expect from a country that deploys stuff without considering health implications, the testing is splendidly incoherent, and unlikely to produce anything in the way of valid data.

Queuing for the metal detector our informant spotted a machine with a Secure 1000 nameplate, and this rang a bell: "I noticed women being pulled out of line and being asked to go through it. Obviously you couldn't see them walk through it, but once through they were then escorted straight to the front of the line for the metal detector.

"Bell clearly rung, I'd hardly finished telling my wife to refuse to go through it when she too was pulled aside. After a bit of quick thinking from my wife, who's just as game for winding up people as I am, the following conversation went something like this...

Wife: what is it?
Staff: it's a low-dose x-ray machine
Wife: what does it do?
Staff: it's a security check
Wife: is it mandatory?
Staff: [not actually answering the question] if you don't go through it, when you set off the metal detector you'd be subject to a pat down.
Wife: that's fine, I don't mind a pat down
Staff: but it's only a low-dose x-ray machine
Wife: I'm a woman of child-bearing age, I'd rather not go through it
Staff: it's no more dangerous than having an x-ray at the dentist
Wife: and I decline those
Staff: well, you use a cell phone don't you?
Wife: yes, but they're radio waves affecting my brain, not x-ray's affecting my reproductive organs."

Note that staff appear not to be briefed to provide subjects with a clear statement of risks and dosage levels, nor to draw their attention to particular individual considerations which might make it inadvisable for someone to go through the machine. The x-ray levels from one of these are low enough to be generally harmless, but they might not be for all people, so the procedures being operated are, first, negligent in that they might result in someone being harmed because they believed the claim that the machine was harmless, and second, very very careless, because expensive lawsuits arise from this kind of behaviour.

But instead of giving a fair presentation of the facts, the machine staff are coming up with guff clearly designed to persuade people to go through the machine. We checked with our informant about it being only women being pulled out of the line, but he tells us that there only seemed to be women staff working at the machine. This conforms to acceptable procedure, after a fashion, because as the machine sees through clothes (which the staff seem, erm, not to have mentioned), the general concept of modesty dictates that only people of your own sex get to take pervy looks at you. But it does kind of undermine any method that may underlie the choice of subject.

Not however, as we've argued here before, that there's a great deal of identifiable method that can be associated with airport deployment. The machine is supposed to be able to detect concealed weapons, drugs or explosives that wouldn't show up in the detector. Your thinking terrorist has probably put these through the hand luggage scanner anyway, meaning that most people going through the metal detector really won't have anything to detect. So the highly-trained (cough) security staff have to guess who might still be carrying something. But they'll get bored with this pretty rapidly, so they'll be given quotas to fulfill, and they'll pull people out at random. They won't actually find anything aside from the odd dope stash some sucker had forgotten was in their trouser pocket, and the machine will not perform any useful function. But Britain being Britain, we'll quite likely announce the pilot was a success because people didn't object to it much, and buy a stack of them anyway.

Our informant's wife, incidentally, didn't get scanned but was sent to the front of the queue anyway. Which tells you some more about the effectiveness of the security staff, and the foolishness of attempting to cede security to automated systems. ®

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