The X (Ray) Factor

My girlfriend Wendy called me yesterday with some dramatic news.  I was all set to agree that it was disgraceful that Cheryl Cole was going to get to mime on the X Factor this weekend, absolutely disgraceful – when she interrupted me.  “No, it’s a legal thing!  Human Rights?  Manchester Airport have launched a trial where passengers will be security checked using “imaging technology”!  What that means is that security staff are going to get to see everybody naked!”

This, ladies and gentlemen, is what happens when your girlfriend gets hooked on the Daily Mail Showbiz website. It’s one small step from X Factor to the breaking technology stories of the day. And this particular story looks as if it has some way to run.

“Imaging technology” is effectively “body scanning” (but presumably openly referring to it as “body scanning” would freak passengers out too much).  The process works by bouncing x-rays off an individual’s skin to produce an outline image of their body in order to detect concealed and potentially dangerous objects.  There is no need for the passenger to remove their coat, jacket, shoes or belt.

The images are transmitted to a standalone computer and reviewed by a security officer who has no visual or verbal contact with the area where the imaging is taking place.  The security officer viewing the image electronically confirms if the passenger can proceed or whether a search is required.

According to Manchester Airport’s Head of Customer Experience, Sarah Barrett: “Imaging technology offers a potential alternative but we know that some people see it as controversial. That’s why we’re running a trial. We’re being completely open about how imaging technology works so that passengers can tell us whether it is an acceptable alternative.  The process is entirely anonymous. We can assure the public that contrary to popular misconception, imaging technology does not allow security staff to see passengers naked. The image produced is a black and white, ghost-like outline of an individual’s body without any distinguishing features such as hair or facial features, making it impossible to recognise people but simple to detect concealed threats.”

Besides obvious concerns about exposure to radiation (apparently the Health Protection Agency has confirmed that the amounts of radiation involved are tiny and perfectly safe), I’m not convinced that the technology will only produce “ghost-like outlines”.  The example which has been published is pretty clear.  (Bear in mind too that the BBC has applied some judicious “blurring” to the images shown.) 

If you’re getting a flight from Manchester Airport any time soon you’ll be pleased to hear that the trial is currently being run on an “opt-in” basis. 

Nevertheless it might not be long before all UK Airports start using this technology, and on a permanent basis.  After all, it’s already being rolled out in the US.  Will you have any right to refuse to participate? 

A lot may depend on the extent to which an individual can be said to be identifiable from the body scan which is taken.  As already discussed there is debate as to the quality of these images.  Comparisons can perhaps be drawn with recent case law regarding privacy and photographs of individuals, where photographs of individuals have been ruled unlawful because they have engaged the right to privacy under Article 8(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights (see for example Wood v Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis or, for a brief summary, our legal update on this case).

A body scan could also (potentially, depending on exactly what information (if any) the operating authority records) constitute “personal data” under the Data Protection Act 1998, meaning that any kind of enforced participation in the scanning would infringe the Data Protection Act if it wasn’t capable of justification on any of the grounds set out in that legislation.   There is also the related issue (both under data protection legislation and in wider privacy terms) of controlling the use of and access to the images and any related information. The privacy safeguards currently in place under the trial are unclear.  It’s claimed that the images cannot be stored or captured on the standalone computer to which they’re transmitted, but is this being independently verified?

I think there are a lot of questions to be answered about this technology and its privacy implications.  The trial will run for at least 12 months and I will watch the developments with interest.

John McGonagle

1 Response to “The X (Ray) Factor”


  1. 1 Jennie October 20, 2009 at 12:38 pm

    And they had to stop scanning children, as it could be classed technically as making an indecent image of a child:
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/manchester/8313335.stm

    To paraphrase Mr T: I ain’t getting in no body scanner, fool!


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