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Britain to start full-body scans at Heathrow Airport

Despite privacy concerns, authorities will start using full-body scanners at Heathrow Airport, one of the world’s busiest, in about three weeks, the British government announced Tuesday.

The move reflected the determination of Prime Minister Gordon Brown to deploy the controversial technology as soon as possible in the wake of the failed attack Christmas Day on a Detroit-bound airliner from Amsterdam. Such scanners are already being tested at a smaller English airport.

Home Secretary Alan Johnson told lawmakers that body scanners would have stood a “50% to 60% chance” of detecting the explosives concealed by alleged bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in his underwear before he boarded the holiday Northwest Airlines flight.

However, Johnson said, the machines at Heathrow will not be used on all travelers but rather “on a random basis” as part of a beefed-up security strategy that will include deploying more sniffer dogs, training staff members to spot unusual passenger behavior and installing sophisticated explosives-detection equipment in all British airports by year’s end. “The scanners themselves aren’t the magic bullet here,” Johnson said. “We need to use this perhaps not as the first line, but as the second line . . . of our defense.”

As in the United States, critics in Britain have been outspoken in their concern over privacy, calling the technology “electronic strip-searching” because the machines see through clothing to generate detailed images of bodies.

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As an added difficulty for the British government, children’s rights activists here say that such revealing images of minors could be tantamount to child pornography and therefore illegal.

The Guardian newspaper reported Tuesday that a trial run of the machines underway at the international airport in Manchester, in northern England, began last month only after children younger than 18 were exempted from scanning.

Johnson did not say whether the same restriction would apply at Heathrow, whose five terminals serve 68 million passengers a year. But he said measures would be in place to preserve as much privacy as possible. The scanners’ images are to be destroyed immediately after viewing, and the screeners would not be in the same room as the person being scanned.

The government is “mindful of civil liberties concerns,” Johnson said, but also “conscious of our overriding obligations to protect people’s life and liberty.”

Two full-body scanners are in use at LAX, where they serve as a security measure when passengers set off metal detectors, according to the Transportation Security Administration.

Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam said it would introduce scanners for passengers on all U.S.-bound flights, but those machines will be fitted with software that projects a stylized human figure rather than an image of the actual person’s body, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.

henry.chu@latimes.com


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