OTTAWA — The government will install dozens of scanners that can peer through the clothes of travellers in airports across Canada.
It will also set up an airport watch system to look for suspicious passengers and tab them for more screening.
“We’ve got to stay ahead of the terrorist elements,” Transport Minister John Baird said in announcing plans to buy 44 of the $250,000 machines.
The announcement was part of an international response to a Christmas Day attempt by a Nigerian man to blow up a jetliner over Michigan by igniting explosives sewn into his underwear.
The United States has already demanded tighter screening of passengers from 14 countries. Canada has banned carry-on bags for U.S.-bound air passengers.
Britain also wants to deploy the scanners at its airports, but the government has run into opposition over privacy concerns. Canada’s privacy commissioner doesn’t share those worries.
Baird and Rob Merrifield, junior transport minister, said the scanners will only be used for passengers singled out for secondary screening. And people who don’t want to go through the machines can opt to be frisked.
The scanners will first be installed in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and Halifax.
The system, tested at the Kelowna airport, enables a screening officer to see whether someone is carrying explosives or other dangerous items.
Last week officials said there were no plans to speed up consideration of the long-discussed scanners in light of the near-disaster in Michigan.
But the government, under pressure to respond to the dramatic U.S. incident, has decided to make the multimillion-dollar purchase.
The proposal has stirred controversy because the scanner produces a three-dimensional outline of a person’s naked body — prompting some to denounce it as a virtual strip search.
The system received the blessing of the federal privacy czar in October.
Under the plan approved by the privacy chief, the officer would view the image in a separate room and never see the actual traveller.
Merrifield said the images will automatically be erased after the scan. No copies will be made or kept.
Chantal Bernier, the assistant federal privacy commissioner, said late last year that the holographic image generated by the scanner makes it difficult to identify the traveller’s face.
“In our view, these privacy safeguards meet the test for the proper reconciliation of public safety and privacy,” Bernier said.