Althia Raj
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Airport Security Complaints: Officers Disrespect, Lie To Passengers At Canadian Airports, Complaints Allege

Posted: 05/10/2012 8:53 am Updated: 05/10/2012 8:06 pm

Airport Security Canada Scanners
An airport security officer inspects a piece of luggage while media and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, right centre, looks on during a demonstration of a typical secondary examination involving travellers arriving from abroad by the Canadian Boarder Services Agency at Pearson Airport in Toronto on Tuesday, August 9, 2011. (CP)

Canada’s airport security officers breached their own rules by placing children into “naked” scanners without the consent of their parents and often lied to travellers about the need to undergo a full body scan.

Complaint forms sent to the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) and obtained by The Huffington Post Canada suggest some agents who screen carry-on bags and passengers are rude, aggressive and misinform people about their right to choose a full pat down instead of the virtual strip-search machine.

SLIDESHOW: READ THE COMPLAINTS

“When I asked for a pat down from a female agent, the male security agent refused and said 'everyone' did the body scan. He also told me that it was not a body scan but a radio-frequency scan and no image of my body would be made,” said a passenger travelling to the U.S. from Montreal. “The full-body scan should never be lied about or forced on passengers.”

“I was never given a choice,” wrote another traveller, an American on a business trip who felt he had been racially profiled.

An elderly woman from Victoria, B.C., wrote to complain that she felt a CATSA officer had threatened her with what she understood to be a naked full-cavity body search if she didn’t go through the scanner.

“A male security agent said to me, in a manner that sounded like he was joking, 'Would you like to have a full-body search?' … if not, then proceed to the body scanner. I was quite taken aback, but proceeded,” she wrote. “After retrieving my belongings, I walked away trembling, found a chair and sat down and cried ... I felt I was treated without respect and my dignity was violated.”

Several parents said they were shocked when they realized their underage children had been scanned without their consent.

“My daughter is [age blanked out but is under 18] went through the full-body scanner without my consent on April 27, 2010 around 5 PM at YYC [Calgary airport] on our trip to Las Vegas. I talked to the supervisor who said it was a miscommunication, they though that she was older. It is not acceptable to assume the age of a passenger,” she wrote.

At the Greater Moncton International Airport, another mother complained that her daughter had opted for a pat down but that the screening officer had forced her to take the full-body scan.

“I do not think it should be an option to view children naked and ask that you do not use it on anyone under 18,” wrote another passenger in Halifax.

Although former transport minister John Baird assured Canadians when the machines were purchased in 2010 that no one under 18 would have to go through the scanners, CATSA now screens children between 12 and 17 who provide their own “informed consent,” while parents or tutors must provide consent for kids under 11.

Transport Minister Steven Fletcher’s spokesman Brayden Akers insisted there has been “no change” in policy relating to secondary screening.

In the documents, obtained by HuffPost under the Access to Information Act, many pregnant women expressed concerns they were not informed there might be a potential risk to their unborn child.

A woman travelling from Toronto to Timmins, Ont., said she asked if the full-body scan was safe and was told “yes, no problem.” But as soon as she was screened, another security officer told her next time she should not opt for millimetre-wave body scans and instead ask to be given a pat down.

“I started to panic,” the pregnant woman wrote. “Why am I getting two different responses? Should the staff be trained for all that beforehand? They should know whether or not it is safe?”

Citing Health Canada approval, CATSA insists the 56 L3 ProVision machines the Conservative government purchased pose no risk to passengers.

“Full-body scanners do not pose a risk to human health and safety in single or repeated exposures,” CATSA says on its website.

But HuffPost has learned the federal government never tested the machines or gathered independent information from a third party source upon which to base its decision.

Gary Holub, a spokesman for Health Canada, said: “We don’t test machines.”

When asked Health Canada was asked how they could know the device poses no threat to human health if no independent testing was done, the department pointed the finger at Industry Canada, which refused to say whether or not it had tested the machines.

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Several passengers told CATSA they don't believe Health Canada's assertions that the product is safe.

“Searching random individuals does not improve airport security, nor do I believe Health Canada’s assertions that the full-body scan of radio waves is harmless. This same agency approved cigarettes and bpa in plastics,” wrote a passenger travelling through the Calgary airport.

“I understand that the amount of radiation a traveller is exposed to in one of these machines meets the arbitrary standard set out by Health Canada, however, the risk is still not zero, and had I been told of this most basic information, I would have gladly consented to a pat down search instead,” said another Calgary passenger who was upset CATSA officers didn’t provide more information about the scanners.

Another passenger said the machine made her sick.

“As I stepped out of the scanner I was very dizzy and sick to my stomach ... I could barely stand,” the person wrote.

When some skeptical travellers inquired about the machine’s technology, several complained CATSA officials misinformed them or treated them rudely or dismissively.

One elderly woman who had undergone a mastectomy and was recuperating from breast cancer told HuffPost she was worried the full-body scanner could have a side effects on her treatment.

“I really got worried thinking here is my breast cancer and I understand from all my doctors that radiation is not something to be taken lightly, so I went back to one of the security officers ... [and said] I would like to know what the radiation level I was exposed to was,” the petite woman from Victoria said. “She brushed me aside and said there was no risk. And she said, 'Well you can talk to one of our supervisors' ... She [the supervisor] pointed the finger at me to say, ‘You were given the option.’ And she was loud. And I said this is the first time I heard the word option. I said, nobody gave me the option.”

She filed a lengthy eight-page complaint with the agency saying she couldn’t believe how rudely and aggressively she was treated.

She isn't alone.

A Halifax passenger, who identified themselves as an epidemiologist, said they were “astounded” that the security agent had no knowledge of the research into the device and was assuring travellers there “was nothing to fear.”

“I asked her about the risks of going through this device. She said there wasn’t any. I said that although Health Canada allows its use, its effects on health are still a) debated, and b) not fully known. The agent was getting impatient, and I was getting more unsettled by her lack of knowledge, which was not at all reassuring, and by the fact that I felt pressured.”

Micheal Vonn, from the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said her organization has received similar complaints from travellers who have been rudely and aggressively treated.

“We think this is disproportionate. The idea that we can’t be assured that we can be safe on an airplane until we view people essentially naked, there is just no justification for that,” she said.

Several passengers told CATSA they were simply angry their time had been wasted and also questioned whether the machines were really needed.

“Despite the fact I was wearing shorts, the machine indicated I had objects on my calves, which resulted in a pat down from the CATSA officer. I am complaining about the waste of time this process was. It achieved nothing except delay me,” wrote a passenger flying through the Ottawa airport.

A traveller flying out of Halifax complained that full-body scanners and two agents conducting pat downs were overkill for a short flight from Halifax to Deer Lake, Nfld. “I ask you is there anyone who can honestly say that this flight is at risk for a terrorist attack? Do you really need to see under the clothes of a [person] or pat down people on this route?”

The passenger also wrote, “You have on your website the number of complaints as compared to number of travellers — surely no one thinks that everyone who feels violated and humiliated comes forward? That would contradict everything we know about the number of actual victims and the number of those who report their experience. There is a high probability that your numbers are a mere fraction of reality.”

HuffPost received nearly 100 complaints dealing specifically with full-body scanners, although the agency notes on its website that it has received between 1,219 and 1,608 yearly complaints during the last three years.

The agency suggests the number of people complaining represent a tiny fraction of the 48 to 52 million passengers it screens yearly.

If you've got a complaint or experience with a full-body scanner you would like to share, please send it to althia.raj@huffingtonpost.com

Like Huffington Post Canada's Ottawa Bureau Chief Althia Raj's reporter page on Facebook and follow her on Twitter for all the latest news from Parliament Hill.

READ THE COMPLAINTS


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  • The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) has received a large number of complaints about the body scans now being taken at airports. The following is a sampling of the outrage expressed by travellers.<br><br> (BERTRAND LANGLOIS/AFP/Getty Images)

  • From a traveller at the Montreal airport: "I am writing to voice a complaint about security screening yesterday (October 18, 2010) in the U.S. departure wing, around 10:30 am. I was flagged for additional screening and asked to do a full body scan. When I asked for a pat down from a female agent, the male security agent refused and said "everyone" did the body scan. He also told me that it was not a body scan but a radio-frequency scan and no image of my body would be made. He also made the comment "sorry, I can't do your pat down," indicating that he would have liked to. However, the machine was clearly a full body scanner, as confirmed in news reports. The full body scan should never be lied about or forced on passengers. I wanted to draw this to your attention."

  • An elderly woman from Victoria, B.C., wrote to complain that she felt a CATSA officer had threatened her with a naked full-cavity body search if she didn't go through the scanner.<br><br> "A male security agent said to me, in a manner that sounded like he was joking, "would you like to have a full body search?" ... if not, then proceed to the body scanner. I was quite taken aback, but proceeded. Upon exiting the scanner, the female agent distractedly told me to basically move along. After retrieving my belongings, I walked away trembling, found a chair and sat down and cried. I am a [woman's age blanked out] travel somewhat frequently, and am not given to emotional outbursts. However, for whatever reason, I found this very disturbing. I felt I was treated without respect and my dignity was violated."<br><br> The woman went on to say she would like more information, specifically if the "full-body search" the screen officer mentioned "involved being naked, and cavities probed?"

  • From a passenger flying through the Ottawa airport: "Despite the fact I was wearing shorts, the machine indicated I had objects on my calves, which resulted in a pat down from the CATSA officer. I am complaining about the waste of time this process was. It achieved nothing except delay me."

  • An older woman who flies through Halifax said she is protesting scans by implementing her own boycott: "Rather than refusing to go through the scanners, I have significantly reduced my flying trips to the US. There are at least 10 short haul trips to the US that I have made by car rather than flying with Air Canada as I used to do ... Because I am an older woman, I am often chosen for extra pat downs so that the screeners can demonstrate that they are not profiling."

  • Another Halifax traveller is refusing to fly altogether because of scans: "In light of the recent introduction of blatantly intrusive and gratuitous manhandling at Canadian airports, I will no longer fly. When faced with two choices, sumit to molestation or submit to naked body scanning with equipment that has no real long-term safety testing, I choose neither. My only question is this: How is it that Israel, a country with a MUCH more real threat of daily terrorism manages to operate its airlines without naked body scanners? I am aware of the threat of terrorism and the need for safety, yet I am also aware that a naked body scan might not find something that has been inserted into a body cavity, should we expect cavity searches to come complimentary with our airline passes? You see how this does not have an end."

  • A man travelling through Montreal's airports expressed concern that he was racially profiled: "I was instructed by your security person to step into a glass chamber. I asked him why I was selected. He said everyone in that line had to do it. After going through that I realized it was the "naked" X-ray machine. I was never given a choice. My wife [word blanked out] was given the choice to be patted down or to go through the machine. She chose the pat down. In the US we are told that we have a choice. I complained to the supervisor at that post and identified the person who forced me to undergo this treatment without my consent ... I think this was a violation of my civic rights ... My wife and I spent more than $2,000 in Canada on this trip, in a country [words blanked out] I will be reluctant to travel to Canada again and I will exercise my influence with every professional organization to avoid Canadian cities for conferences ... I want an investigation and the person responsible to be reprimanded if he violated your policy. On the other hand, it might well be your policy [words blanked out] in a sneaky ways,"

  • Another passenger in Halifax: "I do not think it should be an option to view children naked and ask that you do not use it on anyone under 18. Also, please do not ever make them mandatory as it is an invasion of privacy."

  • A traveller on a WesJet flight from Regina to Calgary last February complained that the scanner made her sick: "This was my first time to go through the body scan. As soon as I stepped into the scanner I immediately began to feel sick. I looked at the agent to my left for instructions and just moving my head made me very dizzy. As I stepped out of thee scanner I was very dizzy and sick to my stomach. I notified the agent and she called for the supervisor. I could barely stand. They sat me down and after about 10-15 minutes I began to feel a little better. The supervisor took my information and assured me he would file a report. The agents took very good care of me and showed concern. I stood up to leave the area and I was just OK. When I sat down again I became very sick and extremely dizzy again. I was concerned if I would even be able to fly. After about 30-45 minutes after the scan I returned to normal. Just wanted you to be aware of the side effects of the scanner."

  • A Calgary traveller voiced his outrage that the government has purchased full body scanners: "Searching random individuals does not improve airport security, nor do I believe Health Canada's assertions that the full body scan of radio waves is harmless. This same agency approved cigarettes and bpa in plastics. This technology is merely a smoke and mirrors show to make a certain portion of the population feel safer. I will continue to opt for the UNNECESSARY full body pat down rather than be subjected to these manipulative devices."

  • "I find the new screening process ridiculous for domestic lights. This so called random selection for additional screening has singled me out each of the 6 times I've flown in the past month. I do not believe the body scanners are safe, especially considering how often I am being subjected to them. I cannot fathom how they could have been diligently tested considering how quickly they were deployed. Furthermore, recent <a href="http://www.edmontonsun.com/news/canada/2009/09/11/10834091-sun.html" target="_hplink">newspaper articles have highlighted the deficiencies in the little testing that was done</a>. The alternative physical search is tantamount to molestation and a gross afront to my privacy."

  • A traveller at Halifax International Airport said a security agent said "there was nothing to fear" and handed the complainant a pamphlet explaining the machine.<br><br> "Now as an epidemiologist, I am aware of research into health effects. I was astounded to see that the agent had absolutely no knowledge regarding current research into this device. I asked her about the risks of going through this device. She said there wasn't any. I said that although Health Canada allows its use, its effects on health are still a) debated, and b) not fully known. The agent was getting impatient, and I was getting more unsettled by her lack of knowledge which was not at all reassuring, and by the fact that I felt pressured."

  • "On January 21st, 2011, I was flying from YUL to FLL. I was placed in a line with what looked to be a new machine. I knew that airports were implementing the 'naked' body scanners and I believe that I have the option to opt-out and request a pat down. However, I was unsure if this was in fact one of those machines as there were NO signs indicating so ... Being unsure - I asked the agent 'is this that naked scanner thing?' He laughed, and said No..no.. and I believed him. Why wouldn't I? Well it turns out, it was that body scanner that I was sent through. I am absolutely OUTRAGED that my rights have been completely violated. I would have 100% opted out of the scan and requested a pat down for 2 main reasons. 1 - health risks: [information dealing with the passengers medical information has been blanked out ] It is my understanding that YUL only uses milimetre wave technology. If this is true - How often are the machines serviced and or calibrated? Novermind the fact that we don't really have a lot of data regarding the potential health risks of these machines, but it is a fact that if the machines have not been calibrated properly it CAN cause burns. I would never put myself at this risk. [information blanked out.] 2nd reason is PRIVACY: I am being STRIP SEARCHED without any probable cause or reasonable suspicion and this goes against my charter rights."

  • One traveller at the Calgary International Airport was upset CATSA officers didn't inform passengers of the risks involved in going through the scanners:<br><br> "I understand that the amount of radiation a traveller is exposed to in one of these machines meets the arbitrary standard set out by Health Canada, however, the risk is still not zero, and had I been told of this most basic information, I would have gladly consented to a pat down search instead. My issue has, therefore, less to do with the dangers of radiation to one's body than to the fact that travellers are blindly given the choice of a "pat down or a scan" without being told even the minimum advantages and disadvantages of each choice. This altercation ended in my being verbally vilified by the screening staff (one female employee had a particularly confrontational tone of voice which I did not appreciate) for standing up for my rights and demanding why these risks had not been told to me when I had first been given the choice of a pat down or a scan."

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