Backscatter X-ray scanners, security theatre, and marginalised bodies
I’ve just been reading about backscatter X-rays and airport security in my local paper: UK brings in full body scanners. The UK is looking to push these into routine use, using the attempted attack at Christmas as an excuse. In this attack, the perpetrator had an incendiary device strapped to his leg, and managed to set his own pants on fire.
There has been controversy over the scanners since their existence hit the media several years ago. The full body scans show the body quite clearly – a bit like the images purported to be revealed by those “X-ray Glasses!!” advertised in old comic books.
Concern has largely centred around how the scanners might affect able-bodied cis people: that they will feel exposed, that the security people might be hur-hurring over their fat rolls or breasts, that the images might be saved. Security “experts” have scrambled to refute the claims, saying that only “same-sex” people will read the scans (as if this is supposed to be reassuring to non binary gendered people), that the scan reader will be in a separate room from the scannee, that the images will not be able to be saved with the technology. They assure us that there will be “privacy algorithms” in place.
If anyone believes airline security operators for a second when it comes to future commitments to respect the privacy of airline travellers? I’ve a harbour bridge I’d like to sell you.
The same security experts have assured the media that the scans will be optional, provided as a purely voluntary alternative to a full body pat-down. I’m going to go out on a limb right now and guess that the images are not, for example, an option for wheelchair users who can’t stand up out of the chair. Reassurance of options and choices are not particularly useful for the large swathes of the population who can’t access them.
Things that will likely show up in a full body scanner:
Colostomy and ileostomy bags.
PEG feeding tubes.
Certain medication pumps and implanted ports, such as insulin pumps.
The bodies, including genitalia, of transgender and intersex and genderqueer people.
All of these are the signs of bodies already marginalised. Some of these signs may be clear on current security screenings – some may not.
People with marginalised bodies already have major issues with air travel – with the uncertainty of the security process, with the practicalities of dealing with aids and needs while travelling, with the spoon-sapping of travel, with no option but unfamiliar foods that may affect the body unpredictably, with the difficulty of maintaining personal privacy in prolonged periods in close quarters with others, with unpredictable delays that affect health, with security threats when bodies don’t ‘match’ identification documents.
Soon there may be one more element in the mix: the sure knowledge that one’s personal business will be laid bare in front of security-theatre goons who will almost certainly be poorly trained in disability awareness and gender tolerance.
I give it 24 hours before clandestine mobile phone images of travellers with marginalised bodies show up on the Internet.
Is this worth it?