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.


    I was at Adelaide airport today with my parents. My Dad, whom tripped the metal scanner (all of a sudden these aren't good enough?) denied being scanned by merely refusing the scan and requesting the wand, which they proceeded with and then we went on our merry way.

    I'm amazed at how outright shilly this article is, and @jjcoolaus has an answer ready and waiting every time to "quell dissent".

    This article reeks of agenda and it's sooo obvious! They're trying to convince you to further give up your right to travel unimpeded and your right to privacy and your right to true and accurate, unbiased, medical and scientific studies. This is how they get people to accept things as normal. Tell them lies like you cant opt-out and 90% of the population will just accept it and not even consider the health risks nor the moral implications and certainly never the psychological warfare that's being waged on them every day by sneaky methods such as this.
    And then there's articles like this one written by people to convince others it's "in their best interest" and "well...if you've got nothing to hide" types of fallacious arguments.
    My god it's disgusting!

    You always have the right to say NO and more people need to learn that or else we may as well just skip along right now to our place in a George Orwell novel.

    The remedy is your non-compliance.

    Quote from another user:
    "You state that body scanners used here all comply to ARPANSA's stringent standards. An uneducated layman may find comfort in these words, however as a BE (Electrical), I can tell you that Australian standards for safe exposure to EMR (electro magnetic radiation, which includes mobile phones and mobile towers) that you (and ARPANSA) refer to are based on purely thermal (heating) effects of microwave radiation. The standard was derived at by exposing animals to microwaves and finding a level of radiation which did not raise the temperature of tissue to uncomfortable levels ie circulating blood in our body cools the tissue just like water in car's radiator. Then this level of 'safe' radiation was significantly reduced and proclaimed safe for humans!

    The standard for safe exposure to EMR never did and does not consider any non-thermal effects of radiation, such as damage to cells and DNA. It is very naive or misleading for your department to be quoting such rubbish.

    Furthermore in your reply you refer to an article 'How Terahertz Waves Tear Apart DNA' by MIT Technology Review stating that the article refers to the 'bad' body scanners in the 300GHz - 3THz range and not the 'good and safe' 30 - 300GHz. Here, too, frequency range is not the issue (see paragraph above! If, by your assertion, low frequency is OK, then why is it that ultra-low frequencies are very bad for humans (affects nervous system). "

    Given that Australia is a nanny state it seems like it would be OK to randomly assign people to go through scanners at the airport. The random aspect of the scanning nullifies the point of it. Being oh so politically correct they put old ladies and kids of 140cm through the scanner. The only people to benefit from this security theatre are the manufacturers of the scanners. On the other hand it is terrible not to offer an alternative as they do in the US, the pat down, and to impose intrusion on a person's privacy. The entire protocol of security theatre is to normalize intrusion to amplify the nanny state. It is not making us safer it is making us more accustomed to the erosion of civil rights and privacy.

    welcome to our new world, a world created by the very type who now tell us that this is for our safety, kinda like hitler burning down the Reichstag and blaming the communists. As for the article, sounds like it was bought and paid for this article, telling us how to be nice compliant sheep, when I read it, I thought I was reading Animal Farm by George tu brutus

    Ok, there may be two very big fat loopholes for those who are serious about avoiding the scan.

    1) the rules do not actually say that you cannot pass through security if you refuse a scan. What they say is that you cannot pass through security for 24 hours, if you refuse a scan. They cannot prevent you lawfully leaving the country, so the rule is intended to make it maximally inconvenient.

    So the solution may be to arrive more than 24 hours before the flight and be prepared to hang around the airport for at least that long. If you are prepared to wait that long they have to let you through, it seems.

    Warning: I am not sure if there are limits to how long before your flight you can 'follow through', but hopefully once you have checked in online it should be possible.

    2) Do not refuse the scanning procedure. Find some other pretext to stop you going into the scanner. Create a reasonable condition that they may find impossible to fulfill on the spur of the moment, perhaps. Such as you want them to supply you with complete scientific literature on all the studies surrounding scanner safety, so you can peruse them first and exercise informed consent. Another way might be to remove all your clothes in the security area, bar the legal minimum attire to avoid falling foul of decency laws. Thus you can say that you are not refusing the scan, but it now has absolutely no purpose, and hope that they don't ask you to go through it anyway, which would at that stage simply be vindictive.

    If anybody has spotted any other loopholes, do let us know. There may be something in the law about also having a letter from the minister or something, but I am not sure what this means, you would have to ask a lawyer.

    Caveat: not legal advice, just brainstorming.

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