LONDON: Two years from now when you enter any airport in the European Union (EU), you'll be surprised to find they no longer search you physically. Instead, they will be able to see a virtual, naked, three-dimensional image of your body on their television monitors.
Air passengers scanned by the new technology walk into a large booth where electromagnetic waves are beamed on to their body to create a virtual three-dimensional 'naked' image from reflected energy.
The graphic nature of the black and white body images the scanners generate is alarming for another reason: They also reveal the outlines of the genitalia. To top it all, the images will be stored for a long time for reasons of security.
According to a draft European Commission regulation, the new millimetre wave imaging scanners are to be used "individually or in combination, as a primary or secondary means and under defined conditions" to provide a "virtual strip search" of travellers, reports The Telegraph.
The new EU regulation, which will be binding on Britain, is intended to enter into force across the continent by the end of April 2010.
It is learnt that Britain has already tested it at Heathrow's Terminal 4, though on a voluntary basis. The trial has now been discontinued. The issue has already raised the hackles of opposition leaders and privacy groups.
Shadow home secretary Dominic Grieve has said the British government should not blindly enforce "what Brussels says" and instead the new scanners should be introduced only if British security requirements necessitate their presence.
The voices of privacy groups are shriller. The new scanning methods are an "undignified experience", they contend.
Tony Bunyan, the editor of Statewatch, fears that the technology could subject "people, including women, old people and children, to such a shameful and undignified experience".
"It would appear that this is yet another case of 'if it is technologically possible it should be used' without any consideration of proportionality, privacy and civil liberties," he added.
Paolo Costa, chairman of the European Parliament's Transport Committee, is concerned over the safety of the new technology and the privacy of passengers.
In a letter to the EU last week, Costa said: "What will the impact of the use of body scanners be on passenger health? What will the impact be on passenger privacy? How will the image data be held and how will it be destroyed?"
The EU is only following in the footsteps of the US, which has pioneered use of the scanners at New York and Los Angeles airports because the technology reveals the contours of the body, picking up hidden items, such as guns or knives, more effectively than standard physical "pat-down" checks.