OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada plans to introduce full-body scanners at all its major international airports to tighten security after the failed attack last month on a U.S.-bound plane, the government said on Tuesday.
The scanners, which see through clothing, will go into nine airports, including Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, starting this month, and will be used for now only on U.S.-bound flights, officials said.
Passengers will be given a choice between going through the scanners or being subjected to a full-body physical search, Transport Minister John Baird told a news conference in Ottawa.
"I think for many Canadians the idea of going through an electronic machine is far more comfortable and less invasive," Baird told reporters.
Deployment of the new scanning equipment was requested by the United States, but Canada was still talking with Washington to clarify what, if any, additional security measures might be required.
Canada has not decided if it will follow the U.S. lead and require all air travelers from 14 countries deemed to be "state sponsors of terrorism" to undergo additional screening, a Transport Canada spokesman said.
Baird said the government was also studying using security personnel trained to detect behavioral characteristics that would indicate a passenger is a potential security risk.
Baird said Ottawa was aware the tighter security could cause problems for the airline industry, so it was talking with industry officials about the financial impact of the measures.
Canada will purchase 44 of the scanning units. It tested the technology in a 2008 trial at a small airport in Kelowna, British Columbia.
A survey found that 95 percent of the passengers who underwent the scan preferred it to a physical search, said Rob Merrifield, Canada's minister of state for transport.
Britain, the Netherlands and Nigeria are among other countries introducing scanners. Canada has a particularly large number of flights to the United States, and passengers even clear U.S. customs at the larger Canadian airports.
Civil liberties groups have raised privacy concerns about the scanners, which effectively allow security services to look at an image of a nude body.
The images would not be stored or transmitted and personnel viewing them would be in a separate room with no contact with the person being scanned, to satisfy privacy concerns, Baird and Merrifield said.
The new equipment and scanning requirements will be deployed as Vancouver International Airport is set to handle a crush of additional travelers coming to the Winter Olympics in February.
Airport officials were not available for comment on what impact the changes will have on Olympic operations.
Additional reporting from Allan Dowd in Vancouver; editing by Peter Galloway