Privacy campaigners claim the images created by the machines are so graphic they amount to “virtual strip-searching” and have called for safeguards to protect the privacy of passengers involved.
Ministers now face having to exempt under 18s from the scans or face the delays of introducing new legislation to ensure that airport security staff do not commit offences under child pornography laws.
They also face demands from civil liberties groups for safeguards to ensure that images from the £80,000 scanners, including those of celebrities, do not end up on the Internet. The Department for Transport confirmed that the “child porn” problem was among the “legal and operational issues” now under discussion in Whitehall after Gordon Brown’s announcement on Sunday that he wanted to see their “gradual” introduction at British airports.
A 12-month trial at Manchester airport of scanners which reveal naked images of passengers including their genitalia and breast enlargements, only went ahead last month after those below 18 years of age were exempted.
The decision followed a warning from Terri Dowty, of Action for Rights of Children, that the scanners could breach the Protection of Children Act 1978, under which it is illegal to create an indecent image or a “pseudo-image” of a child.
Dowty told “The Guardian” that she raised concerns with the Metropolitan police five years ago over plans to use similar scanners in an anti-knife campaign, and when the Department for Transport began a similar trial in 2006 on the Heathrow Express rail service from Paddington station.
“They do not have the legal power to use full body scanners in this way,” said Dowty, adding there was an exemption in the 1978 law to cover the “prevention and detection of crime” but the purpose had to be more specific than the “trawling exercise” now being considered.
Passengers also pass through a metal detector before they can board their plane. Airport officials say the scanner image is only seen by a single security officer in a remote location before it is deleted.
A Department for Transport spokesman said: “We understand the concerns expressed about privacy in relation to the deployment of body scanners. It is vital that staff are properly trained and we are developing a code of practice to ensure these concerns are properly taken into account.”