Canadian airports reviewing use of less revealing full-body scanners

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

In a characteristic display of me-tooism, Canada apparently is considering the withdrawal of full-body scanners used at airport security checkpoints, which some have likened to an electronic strip search.

Last week, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration announced it's yanking the scanners, which produce essentially naked images of screened passengers, after public complaints and a push from Congress, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The existing units will be replaced by June 1 with newer devices that display only a generic human silhouette and indicating where a potentially dangerous object might be located.

In a statement last Thursday, the TSA said the move comes after contractor Rapiscan could not come up with a less invasive version of the screening software.

[ Related: U.S. replaces airport scanners in bid for more privacy ]

This week, a spokesman for the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA), said Canada is considering a change too, and is testing a new form of software.

"It essentially generates just a stick man image … that will highlight an area of the body that could need more inspection, like the ankle, for example, or the elbow," Mathieu Larocque told CBC News. "We don’t have a specific timeline for potential deployment, but this is something that we’re looking at."

According to CBC News, there are 51 body scanners used at 18 Canadian airports. As in the U.S., travellers in Canada can opt for a more time-consuming physical pat-down by a screener instead of a scan.

The scanners use X-ray backscatter technology to create a detailed image of the traveller like something out of a science-fiction movie.

Americans were quick to complain about being rendered essentially naked in front of strangers and some raised concerns that screeners could be less than professional.

The Electronic Privacy Information Centre, an advocacy group, filed a lawsuit in 2010 to suspend use of the scanners.

But up here in the land of peace, order and good government, there was nothing like the U.S. uproar, Larocque said.

"In Canada, we haven't had these types of [privacy] concerns," he told CBC News. "We’ve had a satisfaction rate for the full body scanner that is pretty high. A lot of passengers in our customer satisfaction survey have indicated that they’re quite comfortable with the technology."

Nevertheless, CATSA is considering new software.

"It is a commitment that we made when we unveiled these machines that we’d continue to look at other ways to ensure that the perception of the privacy of passengers is kept and just generally look at new technologies that are improving the delivery of service, including at the full body scanner level, and that’s what we’re doing," Larocque said.

[ Related: 'Naked' airport scans could undergo revamp ]

The scanners, which cost about $250,000 each, were installed at Canadian airports three years ago to conform with U.S. security protocols, CBC News said.

CATSA's web site says the number of passengers screened by the scanners rose steadily since their introduction, reaching 51.9 million in 2011, according to the National Post. But the agency said complaints dropped to 1,219 in 2011 from 1,608 the previous year.

But a story in the Huffington Post last May reported Canadian screeners were putting children into scanners without parental consent and often lied about the how the scanners worked — claiming they didn't produce a body image — and about the need to use them instead of opting for a pat-down.