On Christmas Day 2009 an attempted attack on Northwest flight 253 from Amsterdam Schiphol to Detroit was made using an explosive device concealed in the underwear of a passenger. The device had been constructed with the aim of making detection by existing screening methods extremely difficult and had not been picked up by airport security at any point throughout the passenger’s journey.
The previous government’s response to this threat included introducing security scanners at UK airports. Security scanners were deployed at Heathrow and Manchester airports in February 2010. They were deployed at Gatwick airport a few months later, meaning that today scanners are in operation at three of the largest UK airports.
A public consultationon an interim code of practice for the use of security scanners began just before the general election. After the election, my predecessor, Philip Hammond, extended the consultation to allow more time for people to respond. The consultation closed on 19 July 2010 and over 6,000 responses were received. These have been analysed and I can now announce how we intend to deploy security scanners in the future.
The overwhelming feedback from airports is that nearly all passengers accept the use of security scanners and find the process quick and convenient. Out of over a million scans the government is aware of only twelve refusals. However, I recognise that some passengers have concerns about the use of security scanners and these concerns were reflected in the responses to the consultation.
The ways in which security scanners can be deployed have been restricted by European legislation. My predecessor asked the Transport Commissioner to bring forward proposals which relax these restrictions, and allow scanners to be used more flexibly. An outline package which would achieve this was presented to the European Aviation Security Committee in July and has now been agreed by the European Parliament.
Most responses to the consultation expressed discomfort with the idea of having an image of their body captured for analysis, and they indicated that - if selected for a security scan - they would prefer to opt for an alternative method of screening. I have considered this carefully. However, I have decided against it, on security, operational and privacy grounds.
Firstly, I do not believe that a ‘pat down’ search is equivalent in security terms to a security scan. The purpose of introducing security scanners in the first place was to protect the travelling public better against sophisticated terrorist threats: these threats still exist and the required level of security is not achieved by permitting passengers to choose a less effective alternative.
I have considered carefully whether there are alternative screening methods which might deliver equivalent levels of security to a security scan. A full private search - involving the loosening and/or removal of clothing in the presence of security staff in a private room - would deliver a reasonable level of assurance. However, I believe that this is likely to represent a greater intrusion of privacy than a security scan, and that nearly all passengers, if they fully understand the procedures, would be unlikely to opt for this alternative. It is also likely to be operationally disruptive to airports and other passengers. Appropriately trained security staff would need to be diverted from the main search area to undertake these searches, leading to increased costs and longer queues for everyone else. I do not, therefore, believe that this represents a viable way forward.
I am aware that the proposals recently agreed by the European Parliament include the right for passengers to request an opt out from scanning. The UK did not support these proposals when they were presented to the Aviation Security Committee. Given the security arguments against permitting such an opt-out, and the threat level that exists in the UK, the government intends to use its powers under the Aviation Security Act to maintain the current position. Those passengers selected for scanning will therefore not be able to fly if they are not willing to be scanned.
The consultation also asked people whether they had any health concerns relating to the small doses of ionising radiation produced by some security scanners. Only a limited number of responses were received on this issue, but I recognise that it has continued to be a contentious issue. Last year, experts from the Health Protection Agency (HPA) conducted an official assessment of the x-ray backscatter scanner in use at some UK airports. The HPA found that the dose of ionising radiation received from deployed backscatter scanners is the equivalent to that received naturally through just two minutes of flying at high altitude.
The European Commission has called for further expert consideration of the potential health risks from security scanners and has asked the European Scientific Committee on emerging and newly identified health risks to review the evidence. I look forward to the Committee’s report and will consider it carefully before making decisions about which technologies should be deployed at UK airports in future.
However, it is right that the government does what it can to address people’s concerns wherever that is possible without compromising security. Therefore I can announce today that the government intends to make further improvements to the privacy and data safeguards already in place for security scanners.
Software which automatically analyses images is currently in development. Where this technology has developed to a stage at which it passes rigorous government testing, airports will be expected to deploy it when they renew or replace their equipment. This will mean that in the future images will no longer be seen by human reviewers. In addition, airports will also be required to undertake routine testing of hardware and software to ensure that they remain unable to copy, save, or otherwise transmit images. This will be verified by the department’s transport security inspectors.
I have also been considering whether security scanners should be rolled out more widely at UK airports. In principle, I believe that they should. My officials will work with the aviation industry to agree a risk-based approach to further deployments. However, I want to make sure that this is done in conjunction with the availability of enhanced screening technology with better privacy safeguards. The precise timing of further deployments will therefore be dependent on how quickly the new generation of security scanners is developed.
I have placed a copy of this statement, and the revised regulations on the use of security scanners at UK airports, in the libraries of both houses.