Why I opt out of full body scans at airports

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On average, I travel outside of Canada every other month. About half of those trips are to the United States. Many of my trips, both to the US and to the EU have involved the assumption on the part of security agents that I should subject myself to a full body scan in addition to the standard x-raying of baggage and walk through a metal detector. In the three years that I have been flying frequently, I have not yet chosen to accept the full body scan. I opt either for a pat-down in public or, if I happen to have extra time on my hands, a private pat-down. Time is key. My trip through security would certainly be faster if I acceded to the scan. In addition to a quicker, more hassle-free screening, I would be able to avoid having security agents do things like touching the area immediately below my bra band, or feeling inside the waistband of my pants, occasionally in public, in front of other travellers.

Given the inconvenience entailed, one might wonder why I opt out of the full body scan every time. Indeed, security agents often ask me why I am opting out. There are two frequently-cited reasons for opting out: fear of radiation, and concern over privacy. Neither of these are strictly my reason. Though debates about safety surround both backscatter scanners and millimetre wave scanners, I don't worry unduly about their impact on my body. Neither am I worried about a security agent seeing me "naked." If anything, the pat-down is more immediately and viscerally intrusive than any image a full body scanner might produce of my body. I am not worried by full body scanners. I object to them.

In particular, I object to the idea that anyone but me should have the power to create, control and potentially keep a highly-detailed image of my body. One of the features that makes full body scanning valuable, not just in security but also in consumer applications, is the precision of its imaging ability. Outside of their applications in airports, full body scanners are used in the apparel industry to take highly detailed measurements. Consider the sheer precision of measurement required to produce an accurate 3D model of a human body. Human bodies are detailed. All it takes for a woman to move from a size small to a size medium in a dress is an extra half inch on her waist measurement. We are creatures of small measurements. A meaningful 3D scan conforms to our scale, producing images which detail all of our external curves. Thus, part one of my objection: in submitting to full body scanners in airports, we allow ourselves to be minutely measured, but have no access to those measurements.

My objection is not to the idea that an unscrupulous agent might download an image of my body or in some other way use my image to prurient ends. Instead, the concern is what can ultimately be done with highly granular data about my body. In the course of daily life, no one normally has access to such data. The closest anyone comes to knowing my body is me, thanks to my embodied experience. Taking that privilege out of my hands, making it something I trade in order to fly, seems excessive. It goes beyond the questions asked at borders, which at least are germane to my trip. I object to using detailed information about my body as currency to speed my travel.

Detail is the determining factor for me in choosing to opt out and be patted down. Though the pat-down may be a temporary indignity, it is imprecise. The agent who pats me down has a momentary experience, focusing her attention on finding contraband or irregularities on my person. She is not taking thousands of measurements and writing them down. She does not have the capability to collect and remember highly detailed information about my body. She pats me down, finds no irregularities, and then forgets shortly after. Though governments using full body scanners make claims that their machines do not store or transmit images, display necessitates storage. It may not be long term storage, but it is a longer, more detailed memory of my body than that of the agent. It encompasses everything, not just the particular areas the agent covers. It is a far more perfect representation of my body than the agent can hope to achieve. This is why I opt out. I object to the production of highly detailed replicas of my body over which I have no control. I object to the assumption that others have the right to know more about me than I do.

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