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The price of security

January 4, 2010

Officials in Germany say the country may test and deploy a new generation of body scanners at airports this year despite concerns that the devices violate passengers' privacy.

Passengers stand in a line at Frankfurt airport
Passengers can expect more thorough security checksImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

The Free Democratic Party, the junior partner in Chcanellor Angela Merkel's governing coalition, has weighed in on the debate surrounding the use of full-body scanners at German airports. FDP secretary general, Christian Lindner, said the party would support the use of the scanners if the technology is developed further to protect the privacy of travelers.

"People's dignity doesn't end for us when they get to the counter at the airport. We do not support the peep show of the current scanners," Lindner said in an interview with the Rheinische Post newspaper on Monday. "If there are further technical developments, we'll reevaluate."

Lindner's comments reflect growing calls in Germany for installing full-body scanners that allow security personnel at airports to see through travelers' clothing.

Britain to introduce scanners

Calls for the use of such scanners have intensified after 23-year-old Nigerian terror suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded a flight bound for Detroit at Amsterdam's Schipol airport on Christmas Day allegedly carrying explosives in his underwear.

Some security experts say that a scanner might have detected the explosives the would-be terrorist was hiding.

The Dutch government has since announced that the country will begin using full-body scanners within weeks for US-bound flights. On Sunday, British airport operator BAA said it would move quickly to install full-body scanners at London's Heathrow airport.

"It is our view that a combination of technology, intelligence and passenger profiling will help build a more robust defense against the unpredictable and changing nature of the terrorist threat to aviation," a spokesman for BAA told Reuters.

German police official backs idea

A man demonstrates how the scanners work at Schiphol airport
Critics say the scanners violate privacyImage: AP

Konrad Freiberg, head of Germany's police labor union, also called for the introduction of the devices, rebutting concerns over infringement of privacy.

He criticized security deficiencies at airports.

"We have to realize that there's presently a high margin of error," he told the German public television broadcaster ARD on Monday.

Freiberg said tests had been conducted in which police officers had managed to get through the security systems with their weapons.

"That's no good," he said. "The airport operators are responsible for security, and they collect a security fee from passengers. They have the money for security, but they still try and save in that area."

He added that the newer version of full-body scanners is an acceptable alternative to the first generation.

No consensus in the cabinet

An armed German federal police officer is seen in the terminal of the International Airport of Frankfurt
Airport security efforts are still falling shortImage: AP

The issue has generated heated debate in Germany with politicians split over introducing the scanners.

The full-body scanners currently being debated generate computer images of everything hidden under a person's clothes, including the person's body. While they could improve airport security, critics maintain they could amount to intolerable invasion of privacy.

Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger has rejected the use of such scanners.

"It remains to be seen whether they can be used without infringing upon people's privacy," she said. "It will depend on the technical progress of these scanners."

Over the weekend, Science Minister Annette Schavan told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper that Germany would not have to wait too long for new scanner models.

"We are confident that in summer, we can expect research results for a whole new generation of body scanners...," she said.

Editor: Nancy Isenson

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