Profiling is a political football, not an effective security plan

STE Editor Steve Lasky discusses the pitfalls of airline passenger profiling


As we enter the New Year, there is no hotter topic than airline security — considering that on Christmas day a Nigerian passenger tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight near Detroit. Now the Obama administration has announced that airline passengers flying to the United States from 14 countries with terrorism links — Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Yemen — are subject to extra checkpoint screening at overseas airports. And the profiling debate has heated up all over again.

Civil Rights experts argue that passenger profiling violates passengers’ civil rights. Any profiling system requires creating stereotypes of their objects based on existing information. So, because the 9/11 attackers were all Arab Muslims, Arab Muslims are more likely to be profiled than others, which violates basic ideas about Americans’ equality.

Profiling may not actually be effective. Profiling, when it replaces baggage screening, can have a negative effect on overall security. I believe the caveat is there is a difference between profiling and risk analysis.

Several security professionals debated the effects of profiling on a recent New York Times blog site, where most agreed that profiling was not an answer to buttoning up airline security. “There are two kinds of profiling — there’s behavioral profiling based on how someone acts, and there’s automatic profiling based on name, nationality, method of ticket purchase, and so on,” said Bruce Schneier, author and one of the industry’s most recognized security technologists. “The first one can be effective, but is very hard to do right. The second one makes us all less safe. The problem with automatic profiling is that it doesn’t work. Terrorists can figure out how to beat any profiling system — they don’t fit a profile and cannot be plucked out of crowds by computers.”

Americans have a thin skin when it comes to using race to single out the bad guys. In 1919, the “Palmer Raids” carried out by President Woodrow Wilson rounded up suspected Russian and communist radicals and had them deported. And of course, following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt interned 120,000 Japanese-Americans in remote, high-security camps.

Airline passenger profiling goes back more than 15 years, when Northwest Airlines began developing a computer-assisted passenger pre-screening system (CAPPS), which was recommended by the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) for implementation following suspicions that the July 1996 crash of a TWA flight might have involved a bomb.

In the aftermath of 9/11 and piggybacking advances in electronic information collection, the Department of Homeland Security developed two additional programs, CAPPS II and the Secure Flight Program. CAPPS II — which required passengers to provide personal information when they made reservations — has since been abandoned. Secure Flight requires airlines to share the names of passengers with the government for comparison with a centralized list of terrorist names is still employed. Low-tech forms of passenger profiling based on behavior pattern recognition, known as The Screening Passengers by Observation Technique program (SPOT), which have been used by Israeli airline El Al for decades, are also being tested in several major U.S. airports.

“I would start by noting that the term ‘profiling’ is made by politicians looking for headlines, and on its own can’t do much for security. Actually, there are several layers the United States has to build into the system to have real airport security and not just a weak line of defense,” said Rafi Sela, an international transportation security expert based in Israel. “It starts with the Transportation Security Administration taking on the role of a regulator — gathering intelligence, analyzing threats, looking at vulnerabilities and issuing real-time alerts. The security focus should shift to people and not cargo (luggage). My point is that if you know who is flying, you don’t really need to check for water bottles and nail files, but can direct more resources to looking for explosives and drugs.”

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