A controversial body scanning system that can see through clothing and has sparked privacy concerns at airports worldwide is to be installed at the new Kai Tak cruise passenger terminal next year.
The sophisticated full-body scanning system, which can detect contraband such as drugs and weapons, is also due to be installed at Chep Lap Kok airport in 2013.
The scanners can reveal the body naked but the image has been toned down since the first such machines were introduced, with the picture now somewhat blurred. It is not certain if the scanners headed for Hong Kong can detect items that have been swallowed or inserted into a cavity.
Last night, Craig Choy from the Hong Kong Civil Liberties Union, a newly formed group of barristers, lawyers and solicitors, said the body scans amounted to a virtual strip search so the necessary legal requirements had to be met - that is, strip searches can only be carried out on a suspected criminal.
A Customs and Excise Department spokeswoman would not reveal exactly how many scanners are being bought or their cost. She also refused to say if all passengers would be forced to go through the scanners or if they would be used only for those deemed a security threat.
The machines have drawn criticism from civil liberties groups in the US and Britain who say the images could be inappropriately used by security staff. While the scanners are not as intrusive as the X-ray backscatter models which show anatomical details, it is not known if customs will save, transmit or print the images, or if they will have a separate viewing room for the images to ensure passengers' privacy.
The spokeswoman did not say why the department had decided to buy these scanners but said that it had been "keeping a close eye on the latest technology" used to detect illegal items.
She said the scanners were safe, using radio waves to detect the heat contrast between objects such as drugs strapped to the body and a person's natural thermal energy. This would mean faster, more convenient detection of banned items than by an initial physical search.
Law Yuk-kai, director of Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, raised concerns about the use of the scanners for all passengers.
"If the scanners are used indiscriminately, it might amount to serious violations of privacy," he said. "Unless there's a very strong reason, everybody's dignity and privacy should be protected against arbitrary infringement." Law called on the government to ensure their use was in line with the city's rule of law and to consult with the public and legislators before installing the scanners.
A spokesman for the Airport Authority said it had yet to decide if and when it would introduce the new body scanners at security checkpoints.