NEW YORK // A young Nigerian man's attempt to blow up an airplane over Detroit last week luckily failed, but it added fresh fire to a debate in the United States pitching advocates for technology, such as full-body scanners, against those arguing for better human intelligence. Multiple spy and law enforcement agencies this week battled to blame each other for what President Barack Obama called "human and systemic failures" leading up to the foiled attack, including a missed report by the man's father to the US Embassy in Nigeria warning of his radicalisation.
Politicians, meanwhile, renewed their argument over body imaging machines, whose widespread use at airports was prohibited when the House of Representatives voted 310-118 against it back in June. A measure limiting the use of the devices to secondary screening at airports is still pending in the Senate. Opponents of scanning machines say they violate privacy by conducting a "virtual strip search" via computer screens and that terrorists would simply find new methods, such as hiding explosives inside their body or even within rolls of fat.
The European Union along with the United States has failed to approve the routine use of the scanners but the Netherlands announced this week it would start using them for flights to the United States. Officials say Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian, managed to board Northwest Airlines Flight 253 in Amsterdam with explosives in his underwear. Abdulmutallab, who faces charges including one of trying to destroy an aircraft, passed through a standard archway metal detector used in most airports around the world. If he had passed through a full-body scanner, the hidden chemical explosives would have been spotted, say proponents of the new technology.
"This is a specific example of what can happen," said Dan Lungren, a California Republican representative, who will use the Christmas Day plot to argue for the full introduction of scanning machines when Congress reconvenes later this month. Scanning machines are currently in test use at 19 US airports and Mr Lungren told the Virginian-Pilot newspaper that he recently passed through one at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport instead of undergoing a pat-down by a security guard.
"They said to me as I'm standing there, 'so you have an artificial hip and it's your right hip.' And they said, 'oh, it looks like you left some change in your pocket'," Mr Lungren said. "I would much prefer this - I would rather not have hands on me frankly." The US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) said its machines used millimetre wave technology that emits 10,000 times less frequency than a cell phone. It said pilot tests proved a body scan took between 15 and 30 seconds while a full pat-down took two to four minutes.
In an effort to assuage privacy concerns, the TSA said software advances would make it impossible for security guards to store or disseminate images, which would be viewed in a walled-off location not visible to the public. The security officer assisting the passenger would not view the image while the officer looking at the image would not see the passenger. But such safeguards would not completely remove the concerns of many passengers such as, for example, Muslim women who wear the veil but whose bodies would be revealed by the scanning machines.
Around 35 rights organisations launched a national campaign earlier this year to stop the TSA from using scanning machines as a primary screening tool. Bruce Schneier, a security expert who said last week's bomb plot had not changed his mind about the technology. "If there are a hundred tactics and I protect against two of them, I'm not making you safer," he told the New York Times. "If we use full-body scanning, they're going to do something else."