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Anti-terror body scanners may be illegal, ministers warned

Equality watchdog says use of full-body scanners in airports could breach privacy and anti-discrimination laws

Alan Travis
The Guardian
Tuesday 16 February 2010

Ministers should act immediately to ensure that the use of full-body scanners at British airports is lawful, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission has warned.

The commission’s head, Trevor Phillips, told the transport secretary, Lord Adonis, serious concerns existed about invasion of privacy and there was an apparent lack of safeguards to ensure scanners were operated fairly and without discrimination.

The warning follows legal advice from two leading human rights lawyers at Matrix Chambers, Helen Mountfield and Professor Conor Gearty, and could lead to the commission launching a high court challenge before the introduction of the scanners at all British airports by the end of this year.

Body scanners – which critics have called “virtual strip searching” – were introduced on a limited scale this month at Heathrow and Manchester airports in response to the attempted Christmas Day plane bombing.

The transport department has, without consultation, introduced an interim code of practice for their use but intends to consult before a final version is produced this year. The code spells out that those who refuse a full-body scan will be banned from flying without being offered the American alternative of passing through a metal arch detector and having a physical pat-down search.

In a letter to Adonis, Phillips said he recognised the need for the government to take urgent steps to protect the travelling public from the significant threat of terrorism. However, he added, the commission “has serious doubts that the decision to roll this system out in all UK airports complies with law or properly assesses the impact it may have”.

The commission’s legal advice said that while the home secretary told MPs the scanners would be used randomly, the interim code gives no indication of how this will be achieved or monitored. The criteria involved – which may include nationality, origin of the flight or pattern of previous travel – are to remain secret on national security grounds.

The commission said the absence of safeguards, such as the monitoring of who is being scanned and how, means the authorities are unable to check if anyone is being unfairly selected on the basis of their race, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation or disability.

Phillips told Adonis that breaching people’s right to privacy can be justifiable under human rights legislation if it is for national security reasons, but the government has yet to demonstrate that this policy complies with the law.

Phillips said: “State action like border checks, stop and search and full-body scanning are undertaken for good reasons. But without proper care such policies can end up being applied in ways which do discriminate against vulnerable groups or harm good community relations.

“National security policies are intended to protect our lives and our freedoms, but it would be ultimate defeat if that protection destroyed our other liberties.”

A Department for Transport spokesman said a full equality impact assessment of the scanners had begun. He said they were committed to ensuring that all security measures were used in legal, proportionate and non-discriminatory way.

“That is why we have been absolutely clear that those passengers randomly selected for screening will not be chosen because of any personal characteristics, and why we have published an interim code of practice which addresses privacy concerns in relation to body scanners.”

The current raised security threat level meant it was essential to start introducing scanners immediately, he added.

View the original article at the Guardian

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