Customs to trial body scanners to look for drugs

CLAIRE ROGERS
Last updated 14:30 21/02/2011
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CONTROVERSIAL: Transportation Security Administration employees demonstrate new body scanner software at Washington's Reagan National Airport.
Reuters
CONTROVERSIAL: Transportation Security Administration employees demonstrate new body scanner software at Washington's Reagan National Airport.

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The Customs Service is trialling body-image scanners at Auckland Airport as part of its fight against the illicit drug trade.

The use of body scanners at United States, British and European airports to help detect passengers who pose security threats on flights has been controversial.

Customs said the scanner would be offered as an alternative to a physical personal search.

The scanner uses passive millimetre-wave technology to detect concealed objects - even when they are hidden beneath clothing.

Customs said passengers who were suspected of concealing objects would be further assessed as per its normal procedures.

The trial would assess whether passengers were willing to opt for "a less invasive alternative" to a physical personal search, "while maintaining Customs' effectiveness at detecting items hidden beneath clothing or 'body packed' by passengers attempting to import illicit drugs, precursor materials, and other contraband items into New Zealand".

The agency revealed its plans to test the scanners in response to questions from the foreign affairs, defence and trade select committee about its anti-drug trafficking efforts.

The committee said in a report Customs had informed it "that processes have been established to protect the privacy of people being scanned".

Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff said Customs had informed her office of the trial.

"We will see the results. We've advised Customs about keeping the public informed about the scanners and about good practice for the collection, storage and handling of images and information.

"Customs has told us they will carry out a privacy impact assessment if they decide to use the scanners on a permanent basis."

The Aviation Crimes Act says Customs officers may use x-ray or imaging equipment to search passengers but the use of full-body scanners that show nude images of people is prohibited.

Shroff said customs had also advised that scanners producing more detailed images would only be an option if people wanted to avoid strip-searching, which people might see as more invasive, she said.

It also said it would introduce "digital technology, such as encrypted communications, to help detect drug trafficking".  

McArthur said it would not comment on that technology, because that could compromise the security and effectiveness of its drug interception operations.

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"We're not going to divulge anything more than we have to. There are lives at stake."

Last year, the US Transportation Security Administration sparked a privacy backlash when it expanded the use of full-body image scanners, which create what looks like a nude image of the passenger.

Customs will also roll out more of its SmartGate kiosks this year and trial more advanced facial recognition technology.

- BusinessDay.co.nz

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