Opting out from naked scanning – Canadian edition

Short version of this post: you have the right to opt for a physical pat-down instead of scanning in Canadian airports.  Here’s the PDF you need to print out in case CATSA gives you a hard time about this.

Last February, on my way to PyCon in Atlanta, I had the displeasure of being bullied into going through one of the new naked scanners at Pearson International Airport.  I’ve filed a complaint with CATSA about this incident, as the screener should have given me correct information when I asked if I had the right to opt out.

Yesterday, I contacted CATSA’s media office in Ottawa and spoke with a fellow named Mathieu Larocque.  I asked where the specific policy was regarding opting out of the millimeter wave scanning.  He said that it was indeed the policy that one could opt for a physical search, and  pointed me at the same PDF flyer that Peter had pointed me at last week on Twitter.  As far as I’ve been able to tell, the language in that flyer about the scanners being an alternative to a physical search appears to be the only policy information on the entire CATSA website indicating that one can opt out.  Mathieu himself seemed surprised that there wasn’t an item in the FAQ to that effect.  If you’d like to see their policy clarified on the website, please leave a comment via their form.

The machines in use in Canada are ProVision Advanced Imaging Technology millimeter wave scanners.  As I understand it, these are different from the backscatter scanners being deployed in the US.  I looked over the product documentation and it indicates that recording or immediately deleting images is a customizable option.  When I brought this up with Mathieu, he said that he wasn’t sure of the technical details, but explained that there’s some additional piece of hardware which CATSA has not implemented, which is required for storing images.  One assumes it’s some kind of hard drive or flash-based storage setup.  I’m working on filing an Access to Information request to obtain the procurement information around CATSA’s order for these machines to confirm this as well as hopefully obtain more specific information about the implementation details of these machines.

That said – it doesn’t really matter how the storage stuff is implemented.  A malicious agent with a cameraphone will still be able to snap a photo of the screen,

So yes, scanning is here in Canada, and yes, you’re entitled to opt out and have a physical search instead, even if CATSA hasn’t bothered making that very public on their website.  If you opt for a private search, you have the right to ask for the search to be conducted in private, with an agent of the same gender as well as a second (same-gender) agent witnessing.  There are plenty of good reasons to opt out – radiation, religion, privacy, being creeped out by the process, or just not thinking it’s an effective method of doing security, as pointed out by a leading air security expert.

The Privacy Commissioner of Canada has weighed in on this and other issues of travel privacy in a lengthy, informative post, which Mathieu confirmed is an accurate assesment of current CATSA policy.

Thanks to Lisa for pointing me to the Privacy Commision report, and to Peter for pointing me at several of the CATSA links.

Oh, and if you’re thinking of commenting?  Please don’t post stuff about US TSA policy, it’s offtopic, and I’ve seen it already, trust me.  More importantly, I really don’t want to hear about how you think this is not a big deal, so don’t even bother with comments to that effect 🙂

17 thoughts on “Opting out from naked scanning – Canadian edition

  1. Thanks so much for posting this, I feel better knowing what my rights are! If I’m sent to that scanner I’m going to opt out and get the pat-down from a female agent & witness – I’d rather get the pat-down than ponder what a security person is thinking or saying about my body, and whether that naked data is being saved.

  2. Thanks for posting this! It was very interesting and I look forward to hearing what happens with your Access to Information request to find out more about the scanning machines. If there is any way I can help you with that, please let me know.

    I would find the ‘enhanced pat-downs’ more invasive and disturbing than the scanning, so I would go through the scanner. I fly out of Pearson pretty often and haven’t seen the machine in use, though I have seen it at the security area. When I flew to the US recently also I just went through regular metal detectors and bag-scanners in both airports.

  3. My question though, is what are the physical searches like in Canada? I know the US TSA happily engages in sexual assault as a matter of policy, but I was hoping perhaps the Canadians were a little more sane about it. Have you heard anything on that front?

      1. When I last travelled from Canada (early October) I opted out of the scanner and was treated to a relatively non-intrusive patdown. They didn’t give me any trouble over choosing to opt out each time I did, either, although I did have to wait a bit longer for a female agent to be available to check me out. But I don’t know if things have changed what with the american policy changes since then.

        Thanks for putting this up, Leigh. It’s interesting to hear that we’re using different machines from the US. I’m particularly happy to know that Health Canada believes our machines are safe: I’m sure Health Canada isn’t infaillible, but the procedures they have for ensuring the safety of Canadians are generally pretty good (and often significantly better than their US counterparts… which makes me suspicious of why we chose different machines).

  4. Thanks for looking into this! I had no idea they were coming to Canada too. I didn’t even know that the Canadian equivalent of the TSA is “CATSA”.

    The health effects would be my main reason for opting out but according to the manufacturer’s fact sheet it’s only radio waves. Probably get more cumulative exposure from walking around in wi-fi zones (not that I’m an expert).

    I think I’ll go for it but I’m going to continue the story of these things because I would indeed like to know if they are effective security or “security theater”.

    1. “According to the manufacturer’s fact sheet,” Agent Orange yielded “no ill effects on humans.” And, Toyota still swears none of their electronic accelerators ever went bad, too.

      Manufacturers have little incentive to tell you “repeated exposure to our product will probably cause cancer, or threaten the health of young children or old people,” because they want to sell their product.

      Not all radio waves are created equal, and exposure to radiation on a regular basis is never a good idea – I don’t care if it’s standing in front of a microwave, or walking through a “naked backscatter” field.

  5. I’m very sorry to hear that Canada is following the US’ lead down the Path Of Fear. Even if your rules and regs aren’t entirely as bloody stupid and privacy-invading as they are South of the border, they’re still bloody stupid and privacy-invading.

    Good on you for filing the much-needed complaint. I would urge all citizens to do so. This is NOT how we choose to be governed.

  6. I was curious about the “radio waves” that the manufacturer is keen to point out are “harmless”. I’m using BBC weaselquotes there because I think they’re warranted.

    Obviously, I started with Wikipedia-
    (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terahertz_radiation), the article is a little foggy, but the jist is that we have no real idea what submilimeter wave systems do at a cellular level. We do know that they work a bit like microwaves, so there is a theoretical RF related health risk.

    I followed it up with IEEE exosure levels for terahertz, and eventually came across Peter Seigel (http://thz.caltech.edu/) and read one of his overview papers (http://thz.caltech.edu/siegelpapers/ThzTech_biology&medicine.pdf). The interesting section is around page 6, seftion F. He basically confirms that there isn’t really any understanding of the effects of THz RF on cells or living tissue, since it just hasn’t been tested anywhere near as much as x-rays, etc. We do, however, know that there is a heating effect, and that the accepted exposure limits (10 mW/cm) are derived from limited experimentation in other frequency ranges. This exposure isn’t supposed to be cumulative, AFAIK.

    Basically, the manufacturer is using a conveniently unresearched claim as a statement of risk. Sure, we know that low power terrahertz radiation isn’t going to melt your face off, (there are LLWs that use this type of radiation to make their targets feel like they’re on fire, btw) but we don’t know what it does to the cells in your face.

    The quick conclusion, then, is that these scanners pose a theoretical health risk, and should be avoided until the technology is better understood.

    That, of course, doesn’t even touch the privacy and security issues surrounding them.

    1. I asked someone I know if she could look up the Health Canada documentation, and she provided this link:


      It’s a bit light on detailed information since that’s the public link designed for people who want a quick overview, but it does indicate that it adheres to Canada’s best knowledge when it comes to safety of RF exposure. (That, of course, doesn’t mean we won’t discover harmful effects years down the road, but we have to go with what we know right now.)

      It’s fairly likely that you can gain further information into the RF guidelines through an Access to Information Request, if you’re curious.

      I’m significantly more inclined to believe Health Canada’s report on safety because I know a little bit about their procedures and because they’re at a much more significant arms-length than similar organizations in the US. Typically, manufacturers of devices that affect humans need to provide studies from labs that Health canada trusts to provide good data, and these studies are reviewed by Health Canada’s scientists.

      Sadly, many of these studies *are* usually paid for by the manufacturer of the device, so it’s still possible for some shady business to come into play, but it seems like they do their best to examine other studies and ensure that it doesn’t. (So if you see a study that conflicts with what they’re saying, it’s perfectly reasonable to bring it to their attention and encourage them to re-evaluate.)

  7. Back in April, in YVR (Vancouver), flying down to SFO (San Francisco), I got asked to step into the machine. I opted out and instead got pat down, like any other time when their magnetometer beeps. It should be noted that I was offered the pat down, up front, as an alternative choice.

    I can’t tell whether they have made it more intrusive today or not, though.

    (on the return, SFO was even smoother, and I had more gear to go through with)

  8. Oog. I’ve been living in Europe for a few years, but am coming home (home means Canada – haven’t actually figured out where I’ll be living yet, though probably on the East Coast) in January. However, I’m a rugby fan, and have plans to go to the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand in September 2011. During my ticket booking, I decided to just suck it up and pay the extra to fly Halifax-Toronto-Vancouver-Sydney-Auckland, rather than Halifax-Chicago-LA-Sydney-Auckland (Have to go through Sydney, because all the trans-Pacific flights to NZ are full already), because I just don’t want to go through an American airport. However, it troubles me to know that I might not have actually avoided some of what I was concerned about.
    Thanks for the post, Leigh.

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