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Commission examines the use of security scanners at EU airports

The European Commission has issued a communication assessing the use of security scanners at EU airports, at the request of the European Parliament and Member States. In the wake of the terrorist attempt to use explosives on the Amsterdam–Detroit flight on 25 December 2009, security scanners are being increasingly used and are continuing to be trialled in several EU Member States including the UK, the Netherlands, France and Italy. Security scanners as such currently fall outside the scope of the EU regulations on aviation security — there is a patchwork of regulation in different Member States. The published report highlights that this screening method offers a real possibility to reinforce passenger security. The Commission is in favour of an EU approach to ensure that, where Member States decide to use security scanners, their deployment and operation is based on common standards, requiring basic detection performance as well as ensuring a harmonised level of compliance with European fundamental rights and health provisions. It will seek the views of the European Parliament and of the Council in the light of the factual information gathered in the report.  

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Security Scanners

The Commission has adopted a communication on the use of security scanners at European airports. This is a fact-finding report. It is a technical and factual report which assesses the current situation with regard to the use of security scanning technology in terms of detection capacity, and compliance with fundamental rights and health protection. The report is a direct response to a request from the European Parliament for information on this issue so as to provide the basis for an informed discussion. This represents the start of a discussion. It does not prejudge whether there will or will not be any future legislative proposals.

The changed context

Since the failed terrorist attempt on the Amsterdam–Detroit flight on 25 December 2009, Member States are increasingly trialling or using security scanners, for example in the UK, Finland, the Netherlands, France and Italy. Currently this is done under a patchwork of different national operational procedures and standards. The central question, therefore, is if there is a need for EU-wide regulation on the use of scanners or if the status quo — where security scanners fall outside the scope of the EU aviation security framework and are regulated nationally — should remain in place. The Commission's view On the basis of this report, the Commission's view is that where Member States decide to authorise security scanners, a common EU-wide framework would be the best way to legally guarantee the uniform application of security rules at all airports and provide strict and mandatory safeguards to ensure compliance with European fundamental rights and health provisions.

The next steps

There will be a first discussion with the European Parliament, when the report is presented to the Transport Committee on 21 June 2010. And a discussion with Ministers at the June 24th Transport Council in Brussels. On the basis of these and other discussions in the coming months, the Commission will decide, with the Council and European Parliament, on the next steps.


Frequently Asked Questions

Does this report give the "green light" for security scanners to be used across the EU?

No. Security scanners are already being trialled or used in five or six Member States in national airports, but under a patchwork of different national rules. The use of security scanners currently falls outside the scope of EU rules on aviation security. The question now is whether they should be included in EU law. If there is a political will from the European Parliament and Council, then the Commission could go ahead with an impact assessment and a legislative proposal. If there is not that will, then the issue will continue to be regulated at national level. Bear in mind that, even within an EU framework, it would always be for each national government to authorise the use of any scanners or certain types of scanners in their airports.

Do these scanners really provide a value added for security?

Security scanners screen for non-metallic items — including plastic and liquid explosives. They therefore clearly provide an additional security capacity when compared with traditional metal detectors, which by definition screen passengers for metal objects. Security scanners alone, like any other single security measure, cannot guarantee 100% aviation security. But an increasing number of Member States do want to use them to reinforce security and detection capacity.



On privacy and fundamental rights

There are important privacy and fundamental rights issues which need to be taken into account in the use of security scanners. The reality is that technology has moved on greatly in recent years and this is significant, particularly when it comes to fundamental rights issues and privacy. Today, for example, software exists which does not produce a real body image but only a stick figure. Software exists to allow for remote viewing; to ensure that images are not stored, copied, retrieved and unauthorised access is prevented; and to ensure that any image analysed by a human reviewer is not linked to the identity of a screened person and kept 100% anonymous. Again, the modalities for the operations of scanners would need to be set out in binding rules.

On health

There are important health considerations which need to be respected with regard to security scanners. There are different types of scanners which require different limits and procedures — from scanners using thermal radiation (effectively natural body heat) and scanners using millimetre wave technology (used in microwaves and mobile phones) where EU thresholds are already widely applied to low X-ray technology where strict application of Euratom principles and limits are needed with operational procedures to meet health protection standards. Above certain limits X-ray scanners are not suitable for this kind of systematic screening and are simply not permitted for use in aviation security under EU law. Finally, it is for each Member State to choose to decide if they authorise security scanners in national airports and which type of security scanners. As part of any EU proposal, the different operational requirements and procedures needed for different types of scanner would be fixed.

Will people have opt outs if they don't want to be scanned? Will I have a choice if I am screened or not?

We are not there yet. A decision has not yet been taken to go ahead with EU-wide rules and operating procedures to cover the use of scanners. As a general rule, passengers are not allowed to opt in or out of security measures at EU airports. However, if a decision is taken to go ahead with an EU-wide framework for security scanners, then the need for special protection, for example for pregnant women, or any more general considerations with regard to optional use, would be considered at that stage and examined in detail as part of an impact assessment, before any proposal was made.

What happens next?

This report aims to shed light on the key issues and form the basis for an informed discussion on the way forwards. If the political will for a European solution is not there, then the issues will continue to be regulated at national level with different national provisions — i.e. the status quo will continue.

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