An old discussion on the good and bad of profiling

Is profiling such a bad thing? “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” and all that. Is it wrong to judge based on appearances?

In same cases, actually, it makes sense. Bruce Schneier wrote an article last year discussing some of the good and bad of profiling. It’s still a valuable read. In the end, if profiles are based on good indicators, it can be an effective security tool. Profiles based on bad indicators are not only not effective security tools, but can lead to security problems in retaliation for bad profiling.

On 14 December 1999, Ahmed Ressam tried to enter the U.S. by ferryboat from Victoria Island, British Columbia. In the trunk of his car, he had a suitcase bomb. His plan was to drive to Los Angeles International Airport, put his suitcase on a luggage cart in the terminal, set the timer, and then leave. The plan would have worked had someone not been vigilant.

Ressam had to clear customs before boarding the ferry. He had fake ID, in the name of Benni Antoine Noris, and the computer cleared him based on this ID. He was allowed to go through after a routine check of his car’s trunk, even though he was wanted by the Canadian police. On the other side of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, at Port Angeles, Washington, Ressam was approached by U.S. customs agent Diana Dean, who asked some routine questions and then decided that he looked suspicious. He was fidgeting, sweaty, and jittery. He avoided eye contact. In Dean’s own words, he was acting “hinky.”

. . .

There’s a dirty word for what Dean did that chilly afternoon in December, and it’s profiling. Everyone does it all the time. When you see someone lurking in a dark alley and change your direction to avoid him, you’re profiling. When a storeowner sees someone furtively looking around as she fiddles inside her jacket, that storeowner is profiling. People profile based on someone’s dress, mannerisms, tone of voice … and yes, also on their race and ethnicity. When you see someone running toward you on the street with a bloody ax, you don’t know for sure that he’s a crazed ax murderer. Perhaps he’s a butcher who’s actually running after the person next to you to give her the change she forgot. But you’re going to make a guess one way or another. That guess is an example of profiling.

Yes, “hinky” there is the indication of Ms. Dean’s profiling of the suspect. And it’s a case of good profiling – she didn’t pick this person because of his clothers or his accent or his skin tone, or any of hundreds of other little things I’m sure someone somewhere thinks would be a sure way to tell. She picked him out because he acted in an abnormal way. Killing all the arabs won’t solve terrorism problems, as much as my brother and some folks I’ve worked with might think it will. Stopping all arabs from boarding planes won’t prevent hijackings. That’s bad profiling based on bad indicators. And that doesn’t do anything but generate animosity between ethnic groups (which, by the way is a good way to heighten hostilities, if that’s what you are going for).

Despite what many people think, terrorism is not confined to young Arab males. Shoe-bomber Richard Reid was British. Germaine Lindsay, one of the 7/7 London bombers, was Afro-Caribbean. Here are some more examples:

  • In 1986, a 32-year-old Irish woman, pregnant at the time, was about to board an El Al flight from London to Tel Aviv when El Al security agents discovered an explosive device hidden in the false bottom of her bag. The woman’s boyfriend–the father of her unborn child–had hidden the bomb.
  • In 1987, a 70-year-old man and a 25-year-old woman–neither of whom were Middle Eastern–posed as father and daughter and brought a bomb aboard a Korean Air flight from Baghdad to Thailand. En route to Bangkok, the bomb exploded, killing all on board.
  • In 1999, men dressed as businessmen (and one dressed as a Catholic priest) turned out to be terrorist hijackers, who forced an Avianca flight to divert to an airstrip in Colombia, where some passengers were held as hostages for more than a year-and-half.

The 2002 Bali terrorists were Indonesian. The Chechnyan terrorists who downed the Russian planes were women. Timothy McVeigh and the Unibomber were Americans. The Basque terrorists are Basque, and Irish terrorists are Irish. Tha Tamil Tigers are Sri Lankan.

And many Muslims are not Arabs. Even worse, almost everyone who is Arab is not a terrorist — many people who look Arab are not even Muslims. So not only are there an large number of false negatives — terrorists who don’t meet the profile — but there an enormous number of false positives: innocents that do meet the profile.

Don’t give in to bad profiling. Look for more than just skin color or style of dress.

[tags]The good and bad of profiling, Bruce Schneier on profiling[/tags]

The falling to pieces of Gizmondo and its leader

What do you do to deal with running a company which spewed $400 million into the vast netherspace of nothingness in just a few years? How do you handle the pressure of something like this? And for that matter, how do you go from European jail cell to multi-million dollar earning executive in just a few years? Well, besides somehow getting a job (or at least a title) as a counter-terrorism expert for an unknown transit police force in California. All these details and more can be gleaned from the in-depth Wired article on the life, times, and secret life of Bo Stefan Eriksson.

THE BUMP IN THE ROAD that ended Bo Stefan Eriksson’s fantastic ride is practically invisible. From 10 feet away, all you can see is the ragged edge of a tar-seamed crack in an otherwise smooth sheet of pavement. Only the location is impressive – a sweet stretch of straightaway on California’s Pacific Coast Highway near El Pescador state beach, just past the eucalyptus-shaded mansions of the Malibu hills. On that patch of broken asphalt, there’s barely enough lip to stub a toe. Of course, when you hit it at close to 200 miles per hour, as police say Eriksson did in the predawn light last February 21, while behind the wheel of a 660-horsepower Ferrari Enzo, consequences magnify.

. . .

WHEN LOS ANGELES COUNTY sheriff’s deputy David Huelsen arrived at the scene of the accident, he thought Eriksson must be the luckiest person alive. That the man was standing by the side of the road after a crash of such intensity was an astonishing testament to Ferrari craftsmanship. The cherry red Enzo had sheared in half on impact with the pole, its back end blasting apart like a roadside bomb. “Multiple pieces of what appeared to be a vehicle,” as Huelsen put it, were spread across the length of four football fields. The chaparral and creosote along the shoulder of the road were riddled with fragments of smoking auto parts, and the shattered power pole dangled from sagging wires like the stiffened corpse of a hanged man. The Enzo’s carbon-fiber passenger compartment, though, was perfectly intact, a protective womb of inflated airbags from which the 44-year-old Eriksson had emerged with nothing but a split lip.

. . .

Huelsen was trying to get the story straight when Eriksson reached into his wallet and pulled out a card with an official state seal that said he was a member of an antiterrorism task force. Then an SUV and another car pulled alongside Huelsen’s police cruiser. Two men climbed out, quickly flashed what appeared to be badges, and identified themselves as homeland security officials. The men said they needed to speak to Eriksson immediately. The thoroughly boggled Huelsen radioed his sergeant at the Lost Hills station and asked what the hell he should do. Keep Eriksson at the scene, said the sergeant, who then dispatched helicopter and mountain rescue units to look for this Dietrich character. The helicopter crew soon reported that it saw no sign of anyone fleeing into the hills. With two men but no drivers, the whole thing was sounding fishy.

The article runs a bit long, at 6 pages, but it is quite interesting. If you already knew about Gizmondo and its spectacular crash, this will just reinforce the ideas you probably already had about the unlikelihood of Gizmondo’s success. If you aren’t familiar with the company, you’ll learn how not to run a tech company and why one shouldn’t fight the big guys (Sony and Nintendo, in this case) via the media until you actually have something to back up your bravado.