curiosity about the ways of the world

Nothing up my sleeve

At San Francisco airport we are offered a choice.  We can go through the bodyscanner or opt for a ‘thorough pat-down’.  Without giving it much thought we follow everyone else through the microwave. My man’s scan triggers an alarm which means waiting for a male security officer and a ‘pat-down in the soft parts’.  


San Francisco body scanner

San Francisco modified body scanner software to protect privacy

Oh brave new world of travel.  A smudgy stamp from Boston’s Logan airport is all my passport shows of an otherwise great trip across the States. But my journey through the many levels of airport hell has been recorded on millimetre wave bodyscanners and biometric checks at Heathrow, Boston and San Francisco.  They have my fingerprints, iris prints and arms-raised body prints. To what purpose?

Ray’s scan shows a cartoon outline of a male figure (much like I could draw) with a suspicious blob near his heart and a square shape at his hip.  The pat-down reveals the square to be his wallet. The blob is not identified, probably a button.

Arriving back in the UK, my inner adolescent threatens to rebel, it’s 4am bodyclock time after a 12 hour flight, but I keep her under control even when we see two small girls being pulled aside for a thorough patdown at Heathrow after the bodyscanner has turned up something in their tiny pink trainers.


Bodyscan images

Nothing up my sleeve


Why do we shuffle like sheep on this ridiculous security parade?  Back home I appeased my rage by Googling reports of bodyscanners – now spreading through most international airports – to find countless claims and denials of invasions of privacy, health risks and breaches of child protection laws.

But putting aside our human rights just for a moment (and on the journey out I had read the Snowden Files, the riveting but deeply disturbing John Lanchester analysis of GCHQ and NSA surveillance of the minutiae of our online lives: do they need bodyscanners? ). Leave aside the health risk arguments for and against different kinds of bodyscanners. Forget the potential for child abuse. Is all this expense on technology, time and money actually worth it?

Not according to Bruce Schneier, Harvard Law School ‘security guru’. He writes and blogs at length on security and surveillance.  In an interview with Vanity Fair he lists three effective changes in airline security since 9/11: locking the cockpit door; ensuring passengers can’t put baggage on planes then not board them, and teaching passengers to fight back if a threat emerges on board (as in the failed shoe and underwear bombers of 2001 and 2009). “The rest is security theatre.”



It’s profitable theatre. Bodyscanners don’t come cheap (up to $200,000 each). They are not all that efficient (Undercover TSA agent sneaks gun through airports full body scanner five times)  And they certainly don’t save time. As governments and airports invest in ever-fancier technology the queues at security just go on getting longer.  And tempers get shorter. (Perhaps one of the worst parts of the airport experience is feeling guilty till proved innocent, or at least unarmed.)

So far this doesn’t seem to put people off flying. Of course we don’t have much choice when it comes to visiting friends and family on the other side of the world. But whenever possible I would travel by train.  Apart from the relatively relaxed checks on Eurostar (hostile Heathrow could take customer-service lessons from them), there are no security barriers at railway or bus stations though they have been targeted by terrorists – after all without grinding countries to a halt it is simply not possible to inflict rigorous checks on all public transport passengers. So we settle for turning flight into a nightmare. With the chance of a pat-down in the soft parts.



There are many sources of information on bodyscanners and other airport security measures. Business Insider gives an interesting account of money spent on and by the Transport Security Administration in the US.



  1. fay

    PS: While the UK seems determined to look tough (Heathrow is particularly unsmiling) is the US softening its notoriously unwelcoming approach to visitors arriving in the Land of the Free?

    Braced for the usual interrogation, we were surprised to be greeted by smiling security guards when we arrived at Boston, Logan, ‘We are the face of the nation’ the posters told us. And even more surprised to be waved through security when we took the domestic flight out of Boston to San Francisco three days later. ‘Keep your jackets and shoes on’, we were told, ‘we’re on a security fast track today’. Two of the 9/11 planes flew from this airport. But we weren’t complaining about the fast track. Bags were scanned but no-one had to take shoes or belts off.

  2. fay

    Thanks Lucy! Whatever happened to the adventure of flight? You’re right, we should ask where all this information is stored. There’s also a lot of questioning of the accuracy of all the biometric identification.

  3. Lucy Perman

    Great piece Fay and horribly reminiscent of my recent US trip – thorough intimate pat down on leaving the UK and then all that finger, thumb and iris printing business in the US. Where’s that all stored now and what happens to it? It obviously won’t get ditched once our visas expire. No surprises either that it all comes down to profits.

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