Scientific imaging controversies in the media: Full-body scans in airports

For now-a-days
I hear they’ll gaze
Thro’ cloak and gown – and even stays,
These naughty, naughty Roentgen Rays.
(Anon, Photography, 1896)

This post is in relation to the seminar assignment asking for a content analysis of scientific related news. We are asked to think about question such as: What are the stories about? What kinds of science is presented? How were they presented – what kind of language was used, what attempts are made to make these news meaningful and relevant? Why, do you think, are these stories in the news? What are the stated sources for the news?

For this purpose I will look at recent developments around the use of full-body scanners as an added safety measure in airport security. This story has developed from the fallout of the recent “underwear bomber” incident. The incident involved a failed attempt by a man to blow up a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit by concealing the alleged bombing device in his underwear. Here the focus will be on the growing debate around the use of imaging technologies, looking particularly at how the media present the debate and the general response to the scientific style of technological images that full-body scans represent.

As would be expected, the incident has already captured a great deal of media attention. After initial uncertainty over what had transpired on the flight, details of events began to filter through press outlets. Three days later, ABC news were the first to publish pictures of the bomber’s underwear with the concealed device. Note the clinical quality of the images, framed as they are against neutral backgrounds with rulers along the bottom to denote their exact measurements. This kind of forensic imagery has long been a staple feature in the popular image discourse, their authoritative quality being expounded in countless guises, from news items to popular television shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

underwear with explosive packet

syringe detonator

As details around the incident became clearer, the nature of how to prevent future such incidents became the leading issue of discussion in the news, with the focus soon centering around calls for the use of full-body scanners in airports as a technological counter-measure that could be applied. This raised the issue over whether such “digital strip searches” would constitute overly intrusive invasions of privacy. Currently featured as the second result on a Google search of “underwear bomber,” a post from Wired magazine’s Danger Room blog (with their stated purview of “Reporting from the edge of the military, law enforcement and national security”) posted examples of full-body scan images and highlighted some of the contentiousness of the technology, with quotes from various sources arguing both for and against the use of full-body scans.

The blog entry hinted at several aspects of full-body scanning technology as being of particular concern. First was the nature of the images taken by these “naked scanners.” Was it appropriate for airport security officials to be given the ability to see these kind of 3D photo negative like images of passengers, in which their private body parts could clearly be made out? This situates the issue in age-old and ongoing debates around scientific imaging, such as those on the various technological invasions of the body that science has created and put into practice; subjective integrity in the face of these types of objectifying and panoptic institutional gazes; ideas around visual truth; the changing nature of what constitutes sexuality in images and so forth. In the eyes of one Transport Security Administration official, the visualizations of the body that the scans produce are of little note: “These images are friendly enough to post in a preschool. Heck, it could even make the cover of Reader’s Digest and not offend anybody.”

As is typical of such issues of contention, polls were carried out with members of the public to gauge how many would be willing to accept the introduction of full-body scans at airports, with the majority of the polls, such as CNN’s 10 Jan 2010 poll, indicating acceptance levels as high as 79%. While these polls come at a time when there is bound to be higher than normal levels of willingness to submit to these kinds of technological imaging, such high percentages do nevertheless indicate a fairly strong general readiness in most to submit to ever more sophisticated and wide-ranging uses of technological imaging in everyday life. This is echoed in other contemporary developments like the general acceptance of further technological gazes like those of Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) security cameras, Google Maps satellite and street level coverage, and the explosion of digital image sharing online on public sites such as Facebook and Flikr. In regards to the full-body scan debate, comparisons have no doubt already been made to the early 20th century responses to x-ray imaging, something I would eventually like to explore further.

A second issue of contention around the technology, as highlighted briefly in the Wired post, is over whether it will be possible for officials to store the digital scans taken. The blog post links in several places to the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s (EPIC) website, where readers can get a more in-depth picture of the privacy issues, as seen from EPIC’s perspective. In regards to the storage of images taken, the EPIC page cites a recent Freedom of Information Act lawsuit of theirs in which “documents reveal that TSA mandated that the devices have hard disk storage, USB access, and ethernet connectivity. The documents obtained by EPIC also detail a ‘Level Z’ authority for TSA that allows the security agency to disable privacy filters and to export raw image files.” This issue around privacy and the storing of scientifically generated information on individuals is also one that has come up in other areas of science-related news stories, such as those around medical or genetic profiling of patients and the ongoing occurrences of supposedly private digital files held by government bodies being lost or even made accessible to outside parties. With the growth of independent news outlets online, media have an increasingly expanding collection of independent sources like EPIC who often carry out more detailed and close investigations of topics such as these, which news media can use as additional sources for their stories. The interested journalist or news reader currently has expanding access to tools with which they can seek out a fuller picture of any particular news item of interest, and even join in the debate via on-site comment functions or in online postings of their own.

(CNN - New questions on body scanners)

The idea of an ‘underwear bomber’ and full-body scans clearly have a potential to capture the imagination. A CNN video short made reference to the science fiction like nature of full-body scans, interspering clips from popular sci-fi movie and television shows with jovial, informal interviews guaging the reaction of members of the public to the use and nature of full-body scan imagery. There is clearly a surreal quality to these images that make undressed shop window-like mannequins of us all, and the idea of ‘suicide underwear’ only furthers a lingering sense of absurdity around what is a serious issue. Again, this notion of the surreal or absurd around a science item in the news is not uncommon. It often forms the main driver in depictions of scientific items in news coverage, with their “Look at what those crazy scientists have come up with this time, whatever will they think of next?…” quality.

(CNN - Airport Body Scanners)

For some, the aesthetics of the images are their most interesting quality. Megastar rapper Kanye West gets in on the act, posting a collection of various full-body images and videos on his blog. While titling the post ‘Super Invasion of Privacy – Airport Full Body Scans’, the appearance of the images on his site, which West regularly updates with postings of sexually charged images from fashion photography, hints at a more fetishistic nature in the full-body scan images. Looking at them in the context of West’s blog, they have an ethereal, futuristic, even funky and alternative kind of sexuality to them. They seem a good fit with West’s own aesthetic of electro-synthetic sound. If they haven’t already been used in a music video, it seems only a matter of time before we see this latest scientifically originated image technology appropriated for that particular medium.

Along with the above CNN video, West also includes a YouTube clip on his post of a group of German Pirate Party activists who gathered at Berlin-Tegel airport to protest against the use of full-body scanners. Calling themselves a ‘Fleshmob’, they are filmed walking around the airport half naked, with messages of protest written on their bodies and handing out pamphlets to the public urging against the use of full-body scanners. Citizen generated journalism and activism like this can also play an increasingly influential role in debates around science. The increasingly widespread availability to a variety of imaging technologies and broadcasting outlets can make journalists out of us all. As in this video, such approaches can often involve appropriation and subversion of the very imaging in question.

("Fleshmob" gegen Nacktscanner, Berlin-Tegel)

In all of these approaches by different types of media outlets we might detect a similar impulse in the scientist, journalist, artist and the technology itself: of representing certain aspects of importance by “seeing through” surface appearances in order to get at underlying, discoverable “truths.”


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