Invasion of privacy or safe travel?

In the heat of such a discussion, it is always good to remember the fundamental rights citizens have.

The failed attack on a passenger flight over Detroit has aroused debate on the use of body scans at airports. The suspected bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, passed through airport security both in Lagos and Amsterdam without the explosive PETN powder he carried aboard Northwest flight 253 being detected.

In the heat of such a discussion, it is always good to remember the fundamental rights citizens have. Under the Dutch constitution for example, all people have a right to privacy (article 10) and the integrity of the human body (article 11). But in both articles the constitution says the right can be limited by formal law. In other words: these constitutional rights are not sancrosact. Still, because of the current state of affairs, they may be casually pushed aside under the guise of increased security.

The European Commission was an early adopter of the idea of using full body scans at European airports. But the initial release date planned for next year was pushed back by European parliament. British conservative Philip Bradbourn in a debate last year pointed out the "technology has the potential to turn a legitimate security concern into an unacceptable peepshow for security industries." He felt the dignity of innocent travellers was at stake.

Italian communist Giusto Catania said: "The mania for extracting ever more information that could be useful in the fight against terrorism is fostering an authoritarian interpretation of the rule of law." Others raised questions about possible health risks of the radiation wave technology.

The debate in parliament focused on the voluntary use of the body scan on passengers who object to being searched manually or simply prefer the quicker scan. European Commissioner for transport Antonio Tajani said the his Commission’s proposal only concerned "he application and use of body scanners in airports as a non-mandatory checking system". He also promised imaged would be "immediately deleted and absolutely not recorded".

In all likelihood, most passengers would opt for a sense of safety over their privacy and fear of a Big Brother-like governments. And Schiphol airport says it now has two scans that are fully automatic. The machines themselves rather than a person behind a screen can detect any suspicious objects underneath a person's clothes. This should reduce some of the privacy concerns.

But that is no reason to take the implementation of the body scans lightly. The arguments brought to the table by MEPs last year have not suddenly lost all merit. And what will be considered safe travel if tomorrow's terrorist doesn't take a plane, but boards the high speed train from Amsterdam to Paris wearing a bomb belt, remains an open question.