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Wednesday, 23 May 2012
Page: 5258


Mrs PRENTICE (Ryan) (12:40): I rise today to speak on the Aviation Transport Security Amendment (Screening) Bill 2012. When Prime Minister Rudd first announced a plan to introduce body scanners into Australian airports in response to the failed aeroplane terrorist attacks on Christmas Day 2009, I was immediately concerned that it might be an overstep into the personal liberty and dignity of Australians. Since the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, almost 11 years ago, democracies across the world have had to weigh the consequences of liberty and safety against each other to find a balance such that we do our best to protect national security while respecting individual rights.

Fortunately, since September 11, our robust parliamentary democracy has ensured that these concerns have been considered, debated and negotiated to the finest detail. The concerns in relation to this bill are no exception to that tradition. The coalition supported the referral of this bill to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications in order to be absolutely sure that appropriate privacy and health standards are met and, more practically, that the machines are an effective addition to the national security framework for Australians.

During my participation in the committee process, many of the concerns I have just mentioned were assessed in detail, and I am now assured that these machines are a necessary step to enhance our national security framework. I would like to thank the 13 individuals and organisations who provided submissions to the committee, and of course I thank my colleagues who gave their time to the committee process. I note that the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee will provide further consideration and comment on this bill. I look forward to the tabling of the committee's report when the time comes.

This bill will implement four amendments to the Aviation Transport Security Act 2004. Firstly, the bill states that a person is assumed to have consented to any screening procedure unless otherwise expressly refused, with the exception of a frisk search. Secondly, it has provisions for dealing with people who are unable to pass through a screening point. Thirdly, and most importantly, it lists but does not limit the types of equipment which may be used for screening and also provides that any images produced using body-scanning equipment must be gender neutral and non-identifiable. Lastly, the bill repeals section 95A of the Aviation Transport Security Act such that travellers are no longer able to opt for a frisk search vis-a-vis other types of screening procedures.

The technology we are talking about is called the L-3 Communications ProVision millimetre wave body scanner—the same or similar technology used around the world, including in the United States, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. The technology works in three stages. First, a beam of radio waves of a one- to two-second duration is transmitted to a person within the body scanner. Second, receiving antennae pick up the reflected energy and analyse it with software called 'automatic threat detection algorithm' that is contained within the unit. Third, if an anomaly occurs, such as those produced by items on the body or inside clothing, a generic human image is generated with a small box superimposed over the location of the anomaly.

One concern that was raised about this new technology is the potential health implications of the radio waves—a common community concern. I understand that the active millimetre wave scanners use what is called non-ionising radiation in the form of millimetre waves, very similar to the radio frequency radiation emitted by mobile phones. This non-ionising radiation produces less energy and fewer physiological effects than ionising radiation, according to the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency. These waves are able to pass through clothing and organic material, meaning these appear to be transparent to the analysis machine.

The human eye can only respond to and see wavelengths within a very tight band. We cannot see radiation; we can only see its effects. Often, as the human condition dictates, what we cannot feel, touch, see or hear, we cannot understand, and often we fear what we cannot understand. Fortunately, with today's modern technology, scientists are able to experiment with millimetre waves and investigate their impact on humans. The technology in these body scanning machines means an individual is exposed to the radiation for less than one to two seconds, which is the equivalent of a very short mobile phone call, or the equivalent of passive exposure from a mobile phone used several metres away. It is always important to mitigate the risk of health implications when considering radiation-emitting technology and, in this case, it appears that such concerns have been addressed and that the body scanners do not pose a risk to the health of aeroplane travellers. Indeed, passengers are exposed to considerably more radiation just sitting on the aeroplane.

Many submissions address the privacy concerns that the body scanning process may create. As Civil Liberties Australia noted in their submission:

Australians are being given no choice about being forcibly subjected to the scanners, which is a complete denial of civil liberties …

…    …       …

… Australia must start to return … towards our traditional freedoms of movement, speech and assembly which existed before 9/11.

This is a view to which I am sympathetic. Politicians and governments of any country must always respect the fundamental importance of vigilance when looking at bills that impose restrictions on liberty. It is easy to resort to extremes. Of course, as some have suggested, if we give up our supposed liberty then the terrorists have won.

However, the privacy concerns that Civil Liberties Australia and others have raised do not address the particular details of this bill. What happens when someone undergoes security screening at an airport? As the explanatory memorandum notes in relation to proposed section 44, the ultimate image produced by the body scanner:

… must be a gender-neutral, generic image such that the person is not identifiable and no anatomical or physical attributes of that person are revealed.

Fortunately, as a result of the committee process, the government intends to propose an amendment which will ensure that any technology used cannot store or transmit images. This is a desirable outcome which will further protect the privacy of Australians. I have seen firsthand the types of images that this technology creates and, in fact, because this technology is able to pinpoint an anomaly to a specific part of the body, less intrusion into a person's privacy is required. This also means that cultural and religious concerns are protected, as religious items or clothing would not be required to be removed. Similarly, the selection of an individual would continue in line with the current explosives screening process—that is, someone would not be selected on the basis of their race, religion or gender, and selection would be undertaken on a purely random basis. As such, I would consider the process of going through one of the scanners to be no more onerous then going through a metal detector at the airport or putting your luggage through a scanner.

Furthermore, the bill will repeal 95A of the Aviation Transport Security Act, which previously allowed a person to choose an alternative screening method. The bill proposes that when a person is randomly selected to undergo a full body scan, they may not opt out or choose an alternative method of screening, and, in the case that they refuse to be scanned, that they then may not pass through security. I am sure that the vast majority of Australians agree that they are willing to forgo one to two seconds of their time in order to protect the national security of this country.

However, I do not agree with the government's argument that because this new scanning technology is so expensive, the program must be made compulsory as a mechanism of inducing cost-effectiveness. That is an appalling line of reasoning—the exact same justification that this Labor government uses for the wasteful way they are rolling out the NBN. It is illogical to suggest that something is cost-effective because you are forcing someone to pay for it even if they do not want to do so. But we know that this government does not believe in logic or reason. However, given that the purpose of the full body scanners is to pick up items that are by their very nature difficult or impossible to detect by any other means, the only other alternative would be an extensive and extremely invasive body search. The Department of Infrastructure and Transport noted:

The only alternative method of screening that would provide a similar level of assurance to that of a body scanner is an enhanced full body frisk search.

Forcing people to go through an extensive frisk search would not be in line with community expectations and therefore an opt-out provision would be inappropriate in this case. Additionally, this screening process could be beneficial for people with disabilities and other medical conditions that would make a frisk search prohibitively intrusive. I understand the privacy concerns of many, but we must not ideologically dismiss out of hand something that, when examined in detail, is no more a deprivation of liberty than the current security process that many people go through, either at the airport or even as they enter their workplace.

The efficacy and consequent impact on passenger facilitation rates was also examined by the committee. Many submissions proposed that the body scanners would be incapable of detecting many types of possible threats. For example, the Australian Airline Pilots Association cited evidence from the United Kingdom that some types of powders, liquid or thin plastic would not show up as anomalies. Similarly, another submission proposed that the scanners would result in an excessive rate of high false positives which may be caused by certain types of footwear, a person's posture or other layers of clothing.

Fortunately, we can look at the evidence from trials conducted at Sydney and Melbourne airports last year, which saw almost 24,000 scans during a three-week period. The results from those trials indicated that 57 per cent of passengers were able to proceed immediately through security, which is a higher alarm rate than walk-through metal detectors. The trials will assist with the ultimate rollout of body scanners across Australia, as analysis conducted after the trials indicated that the higher alarm rate was caused by a lack of familiarity among passengers with the new process due to their not being aware of which items had to be removed before they undertook the scan. The resolution process itself, however, was found to be quicker than walk-through metal detectors, as the image produced indicates a specific position on the body part where the anomaly is located. The effects on passenger facilitation rates, which are similar to the effects caused by the current explosive-testing process, would, it seems, be minimal because the basis for selection is random and this is not likely to produce bottlenecks at security stations. Delays would be much more likely to be caused by screening for carry-on baggage—and, indeed, this is the case today. Every person has been through a metal detector and forgotten to take off watches, hairclips or jewellery. I expect that, as passengers become more familiar with the new process, passenger facilitation rates will improve.

There were many concerns in the community when this bill was introduced. Throughout the committee process we assessed many issues in reaching our conclusions on concerns about health, privacy, efficacy and passenger facilitation rates. I am satisfied that this bill weighs the considerations of liberty and safety and finds a balance which respects the individual rights of Australians while also protecting our national security.