Profiling as a Spectator Sport

I believe that, without some form of profiling, we will not be able to reasonably secure our commercial aviation system. We cannot successfully screen a couple of million passengers each day unless we expedite the process for some in favor of more intensive screening of others. To do otherwise is to either compromise our security or paralyze our domestic aviation system.

Determining who amongst us is to be selected for that extra security look has been raising thorny issues of racial profiling, about which we as a nation are rightly sensitive, given some of the abuses profiling has been guilty of in the past. Contrary to how we now select passengers for enhanced screening, random selection and subjective criteria at the gate should not be a part of the process. The selection of passengers for enhanced screening should be part of an objective analysis of characteristics that we know, or believe, are more likely to identify any hijackers or terrorists amongst us. As imprecise as this definition is, if it is employed, we will have fewer law-abiding passengers seething with frustration at screening stations and gates as a result of so called “random” searches that, in most cases, are neither random nor rational.

While anecdotal evidence is not scientific, it sometimes leads to a more scientific study. In the case of airport security, which is at the moment a long way from a scientific discipline, it does suffice to prove that what we are doing in our airports makes no sense. The following true tale of the travails of a business traveler whom I will call Mary is offered to make my point.

Mary is a business executive who lives in a west coast city and travels over 100,0000 miles a year on commercial air carriers. She belongs to most of the travel elite clubs; her travels take her around the world. On occasion, she purchases a one-way ticket because the continuation of her trips varies with the exigencies of her business needs. These one-way purchasers are a red flag in CAPPS (Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System), which profiles passengers. Because this practice is now well known, it is unlikely that any terrorist would make a one-way purchase.

Employed by an East Coast company, Mary regularly flies between her corporate headquarters and her local office near her home. In appearance, she is very much like what you would expect of a woman of Norwegian descent. In addition, she is an American citizen whose family traces their history back in this country for six generations — nowhere in this family is there any person with any connection whatsoever to any “suspect” nation. She is a member of the bar in her home state but has never set foot in a courtroom in any capacity at all. Nor has she ever visited any country on our “watch list” or been active in any political movement other than local Republican politics. When she travels abroad, she shows her American passport with pride.

As proof that either there is no profiling going on at all in our airports (not withstanding that CAPPS requires it), or that our screening policies are totally irrational, I offer that she is almost never allowed to board a commercial airliner without at least one enhanced search with a personal hand held wand, shoe removal for examination, and an occasional pat down. On a recent trip she was “randomly” selected for six enhanced searches, one for each boarding. Although her personal and travel characteristics could provide the basis for qualifying for the trusted passenger program — a program now under active review by the TSA to minimize what that agency refers to as “the hassle factor” — she remains the hassle factor’s poster child.

A rational profiling system would pass this passenger right on through, not because of her race or ethnicity alone, but because the entire package of characteristics indicates that she is less likely to be a hijacking or terrorism threat when measured against the threat profile.
For some of us who travel by air frequently, trying to identify the “terrorists” on our flight has become a new spectator sport. Recently, five Arab American passengers brought suit against four airlines for removing them from their flights because it was alleged they made one or more other passengers “uncomfortable.” Presumably, the aggrieved passengers had been subjected to the same security screening as their fellow passengers before boarding, but in the eyes of some passengers (not qualified to make that assessment), they presented a sufficient threat potential to convince the airlines that they be removed.

While I can think of many reasons why passengers aboard an airplane might be sufficiently concerned about another passenger to justify his or her removal, looking like an Arab should not be one of them. Indeed, being an Arab, being a Muslim, or belonging to any racial, ethnic, or religious group is not what professional profiling is supposed to be about. Given the nature of today’s terrorism threat, racial, religious, ethnic, age, and gender characteristics must play a role in profiling passengers for enhanced security, but they are neither proof of terrorist intent nor characteristics easily determined by simple observation. Assumptions based solely on appearance need to be avoided, particularly in a nation as diverse as ours, and especially when they impinge on the freedom to travel. If average Americans become convinced that they are better at profiling than trained profilers and take aggressive action accordingly, as a nation we will quickly reject professional profiling, and we will be worse for it.

As we are exposed to dire warnings that we are at risk in our normal public activities, we find ourselves needing assurance that those charged with protecting us know what they are doing. When solid citizens are repeatedly subjected to pointless enhanced searches, their confidence in government is eroded, and self-defense instincts kick in. To reverse that trend in our airports, we need to develop profiling systems that are rational and based on empirical evidence. Randomly selecting candidates for enhanced searches results in disrespect for the process and the screeners. And limiting profiling of air passengers to a few immutable characteristics such as race, age, and ethnicity alone will surely result in first the misuse and then the disuse of a vital tool needed to protect our commercial aviation system.

Even with the best intentions on the part of professionals conducting rationally-based profiling, some loyal citizens and visitors will be inconvenienced and embarrassed by what they consider intrusive searches and questioning at our airports in plain view of others. Such minimal intrusions into privacy, however, when compared against the risks that we face without them, are justified. If those intrusions result in evidence of a need to deny air travel to a passenger, it will not be solely because the passenger’s physical appearance makes another uncomfortable, but because a rational inquiry has resulted in the need to take additional action before the passenger can be cleared for boarding.

In order for us as nation to evolve to the point where we will allow more intrusive searches of our fellow citizens whose profiles justify such searches, those who are charged with selecting candidates for those searches and those who conduct them need to gain the trust and confidence of the traveling public. Recent arguments by airline executives in favor of cutting back on security are based on the “hassle factor” which they fear, perhaps correctly so, has resulted in the loss of business passengers who have switched to more hassle-free modes of transportation. By selecting the right passengers for enhanced searches, we can reduce both the number of passengers delayed and the time it takes to clear security — thereby all but eliminating the hassle factor and encouraging important business travelers back into the system.

There is no such thing as too much security in our airports. The problems are with the kind of security we engage in and our ability to do it right. The proper use of profiling will contribute to the achievement of a commercial aviation system which is both user-friendly and secure.

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