Business Travel

You Can't Opt Out Of Airport Body Scans In Australia

Since December, travellers departing Australian international airports can be asked to pass through a body scanner. You might not be a fan of body scanners, but if you’re selected and asked to undergo one, you don’t have the choice of opting out or asking for an alternative.

Photo: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Proposals to introduce body scanners at airports (a plan which first emerged in Australia early last year) are often controversial. The objections typically fall into three categories:

  • The devices are a potential invasion of privacy and images from them might be shared with others
  • The devices pose a potential medical risk
  • Body scanning is merely another form of irrelevant “security theatre” at airports

As I’ve noted before, I’m not personally convinced by any of these arguments. The imagery from body scanners doesn’t identify you as an individual or include detailed imagery of your naked body (and in any event, everyone has genitals, people). Assessments of the medical risk suggest that it’s lower than that of using a mobile phone, and the radiation levels involved are much lower than the permitted Australian standard. As for the security theatre argument, in a world where Americans tried to board planes with loaded firearms last year, it’s clear that some form of security assessment is needed.

In any case, arguing over these issues is fairly pointless now that scanners are a reality for international travel when departing Australia. Body scanners aren’t being used on every single departing passenger, but if you’re asked to use one, refusing isn’t an option. As the FAQ for the body scanning process on the federal government TravelSECURE site makes clear, there’s no grounds for opting out other than health:

If a person refuses to undergo a body scan, and they have no medical or physical condition which prevents them for undertaking a body scan, they will be refused clearance and not allowed to pass through the screening point.

Not only will that mean missing your flight, you’ll also be banned from boarding any flight for 24 hours. Body scans won’t be compulsory for infants or children under 140cm in height. Anyone who has a medical condition meaning they can’t stand upright with their hands above their head for several seconds is also exempt (but may be asked to undergo additional screening, including a body search). Other than that, however, there are no grounds for refusal.

That’s a different situation to the US, where passengers can opt out of body scans and ask for a pat-down search instead. I suspect that this is going to lead to a few angry confrontations at Australian airports because of confusion over the differing rules. I still regularly get asked by people if liquid and gel restrictions apply to Australian domestic flights (they don’t), so it’s clear that many people believe there’s a single international set of rules regarding flight security. There aren’t.

Body scanning via a machine is much faster than a body search, and as such makes the process of getting through the airport. For that reason, I’m all for it — but I’m not kidding myself that everyone else feels the same way. Just remember: no amount of arguing will get you out of it.

Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman feels sorry for anyone forced to contemplate scans of his body. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.


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