Profiling Passengers Pros and Cons

Profiling Passengers Pros and Cons

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The threat of terrorism has made airport security measures a hot topic since 9/11. While passengers face ever-longer lists of prohibited items, security experts increasingly argue that it is passengers themselves, not the contents of their bags, that need to be scrutinized. Those in the air travel business may agree, as the time and inconvenience of getting through airport security grows, making air travel unattractive to customers. If passenger profiling works, it would be an effective way to prevent terrorists from attacking and save time and money for everyone else.

Profiling Provokes Concerns Over Civil Liberties

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. The chance that inaccuracies and prejudice will make their way into the system is good.

Profiling's Effectiveness Remains to Be Proven

Profiling may not actually be effective. Profiling, when it replaces baggage screening, can have a negative effect on overall security, according to the American Civil Liberties Union: In 1972, the last year the United States used profiles to determine whose carry-on luggage would be X-rayed to stop hijacking, there were 28 hijackings of U.S. aircraft anyway. Hijacking dropped off when profiling was abandoned and every passenger's carry-on luggage was X-rayed.

Latest Developments

The August 2006 arrest of 24 men planning to blow up aircraft leaving Heathrow's airport using a combination of innocuous liquids re-opened the debate about effective airport screening. Later in the week, the British government announced that it is considering a passenger profiling system that would go beyond simply identifying passengers with specific racial or ethnic backgrounds.

Amid extra security measures, delays and skyrocketing threat levels for passengers, analysts concluded that current hand-baggage screening technology is probably not sufficient to identify all potential bomb components, especially homemade ones. "The trouble with airport security measures is that a lot of machines do not spot a lot of explosives. It is still a case of dogs and people taking their clothes off," Andy Oppenheimer, an editor for Jane's Nuclear Biological Chemical Defense, told The Guardian.


Airline passenger profiling got its official start in 1994 when Northwest Airlines began developing a computer-assisted passenger prescreening system (CAPPS). Following suspicions that the July 1996 crash of a TWA flight might have involved a bomb, the government began making recommendations that profiling through CAPPS should be made routine.

Civil liberties organizations raised concerns that such programs are discriminatory. Their use remained widespread, however, and both a 1997 Justice Department report and 1998 Senate Subcommittee aviation hearings concluded that CAPPS was being implemented in a fair way. They recommended Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) oversight to make sure that profiling remained fair.

Concerns about terrorism following 9/11 and advances in electronic information collection and gathering have raised the stakes. Following September 11, the Department of Homeland Security developed two programs, CAPPS II and the Secure Flight Program, both of which have been controversial on civil liberties grounds. CAPPS II, which required passengers to provide personal information when they made reservations, has been abandoned. Secure Flight requires airlines to share the names of passengers with the government for comparison with a centralized list of terrorist names.

The government is also experimenting with low-tech forms of passenger profiling based on behavior pattern recognition. Security officers use the technique to flag passengers who seem to be acting suspiciously. While it is behavior, not race or ethnicity, that's being tagged, there are concerns that behavior pattern recognition can turn easily into racial profiling, or subject innocent people to illegal searches without a good pretext. The Screening Passengers by Observation Technique program, known as SPOT, has been in use in major city airports since 2004.

The Case for Profiling

While behavior pattern recognition hasn't yet stopped any terrorists, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence suggesting that it can. Officers using behavior pattern recognition techniques at major U.S. airports have successfully stopped people with fake identification, and others wanted for drug possession or other crimes. The threat of terrorism warrants adding these techniques to existing baggage screening technology.

Passenger Profiling Is a Race-Neutral Technique

Behavior pattern recognition is a race-neutral profiling technique in which screeners look for how people act, rather than the shade of their skin. In fact, profilers are prohibited from relying on race or other discriminatory factors to identify potential terrorists. A program analyst for the Transportation Security Administration called SPOT an "antidote to racial profiling… If you look for a certain race or ethnicity, you're making a big mistake."

As for screening technologies that make use of electronic databases, our elected officials and others can pressure the government to notify the public that private information is being used, and adhere to other requirements. In fact, requiring the government to use technologies and techniques in an ethical way would be a great way to move beyond the well-debated conflict between liberty and security. The government can provide Americans with both by appropriately using profiling technology and methods.

The Case Against Profiling

Terrorists may go undetected by behavior pattern recognition profiling, despite the technique's success in capturing other criminals. Terrorists may be trained for long periods in how to control suspicious behaviors. And there are no existing profile templates for how terrorists behave, so it would be difficult to come up with a profile that predicts their specific ways of behaving.

Profiling Can Amount to an Ethnic Witch Hunt

There is such a high likelihood that profiling will turn into an ethnic witch hunt that it is not worth risking its use. The British implementation of similar profiling in August 2006 immediately provoked a Muslim police officer to call it "an extreme form of stereotyping." Such a move by American authorities is likely to provoke similarly justified outrage and in the process damage the United States' already troubled relationship with Islamic communities, both domestically and abroad.

Profiling Technologies Violate Passengers' Privacy Rights

Northwest Airlines' release of private citizens' information to NASA in 2001-2002 suggests that neither the public nor private sector is interested in preserving Americans' right to privacy. The availability of technology that encourages the coordination and use of even more personal information will make it increasingly difficult to enforce civil liberties, and although violations of rights may be discovered after the fact, the damage will already have been done.

Stopping terrorists before they strike is key to protecting Americans' security. But protecting the country also means aiming to protect its ideals. At the least, it would be ironic if the quest to protect the ideals of American freedom cost Americans their civil liberties.

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