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]