Dec 2005 - Body scanners are a warning, not a solution

01 June 2013

Transport Secretary Alistair Darling has announced that some British rail and Underground stations will, early next year, install airport-style checks using body scanners and X-ray machines for increased security. ASLEF supports all reasonable measures for improving the security of our members and the traveling public – but we also recognise the danger that having technology in place often means the public become less aware of the need for vigilance. The new machinery must not mean that we let up on our public awareness campaigns.

We have such short memories. For a week or so after the 7 July bombings that killed 52 people and injured thousands, London became a highly secure place to travel. Every pair of eyes in the city scanned their surrounds, seeking out suspicious bags or behaviour. It was not a pleasant experience to feel under attack in your own city, but it was necessary and Londoners grew used to it. People wanted to know who owned unattended luggage; they were aware of their fellow passengers: they looked up from the newspapers they normally hold up in front of them like visors on suits of armour. They were aware of their surrounds.

Now - and it give me no pleasure to say this - the attacks have become a distant memory and the level of awareness has fallen. There are two reasons for this. One is that people don't like to be reminded of a terrible danger that threatens their lives: we'd sooner ignore it and hope it will go away. It is a natural human instinct.

The second is the attitude that safety is not our own business: that someone else will do it for us. Someone else will protect us and do the job. As soon as a few armed policemen hove into view, we relax. Someone is sorting it out, so we don't need to bother.

This is precisely the view we don't want, either at work or as a passenger. The trial in the New Year will test equipment at a small number of UK railway and London Underground stations. The first will run for four weeks at the Heathrow Express platforms on London's Paddington station. Randomly chosen passengers will either go through a scanner or be searched by hand, with the use of portable trace equipment or sniffer dogs. Bags may be passed through x-ray machines. It will include the first use on Britain's railway of body scanners using millimetre wave technology. This enables security staff to check for objects concealed under clothing.

I welcome trials of the new security equipment not because we can have faith in it - but because it is a living warning to us all to keep on our toes. The equipment cannot offer security because terrorists - especially suicide killers - cannot be stopped. There is always a way through. But it does have a function. If it reminds us of the dangers that continue to surround us, and encourages us to be vigilant, then it performs a useful function.

But we need to remember that security equipment is not a solution. It is a reminder that we all have responsibility for our own safety.

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