May 30, 2017

Airport Security Screening: Profiling – Yes or No?

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Aviation Safety

With the recent furor over new invasive screening procedures instituted by the TSA in a growing number of US airports, arguments have been raging online between supporters of TSA measures, and those promoting profiling as a legitimate and useful alternative to the TSA’s back-scatter X-ray scanners and “enhanced pat-downs”. The new TSA procedures have been called “strip-search scanners” and “government-endorsed sexual molestation” by many Americans who see them as violations of our right to privacy and forms of illegal search and seizure. In a November 30, 2010 column, The Week asks “Airport Screening: Would Profiling Work?”

The article below examines the arguments from both sides of the profiling debate and finds both wanting. It concludes with what sort of profiling would work, and why.

Proponents of Profiling Have it Wrong

Many proponents of profiling in US airports seem to feel it would be acceptable and effective to selectively apply intensive screening only to young Muslim males, since the majority of terrorist attacks worldwide in recent years appear to have been carried out by young Muslim males.

These proponents are likely not young Muslim males, and as such would not be discommoded by the profiling they call for. Sadly, their concerns about civil liberties and equality before the law appear to be limited to “us” and not so much for “them”. Such arguments, intended to protect civil liberties for one group at the expense of those self-same liberties for the innocent majority of another group, are hardly convincing.

What such proponents miss is that while the majority of terrorists threatening the US may arguably be young Muslim males, it is far from true that the majority, or even a sizable minority, of young Muslim males are terrorists.

People Opposing Profiling Have it Wrong

Columnist Eric Gertler argues in a November 28 Huffington Post column against Israeli-style profiling as part of US airport security screening. He says: “As one who has willingly succumbed to its procedures on past trips to Israel, this system would doubtfully work in the U.S. Israel handles more limited flights (about 50 flights per day from two airports compared to thousands of daily flights departing from hundreds of airports in the U.S.). Moreover, while Israelis enjoy democratic freedoms, they also live under the constant threat of attacks and more fully understand the need for thorough airline inspections and arriving many hours prior to flight departure.

Certainly, the US has hundreds, if not thousands of times as many airports as does Israel. The busiest of US airports certainly handle dozens of times as many daily flights as does Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport. However, the US population and economy are dozens of times larger those of Israel, so there is no reason why we could not scale up the Israeli screening model. Further, Israeli security screening lines move faster than similar lines at US airports, so Israeli fliers do not need to show up any earlier than their American counterparts.

Finally, the very facts that Israel faces much more immediate and severe terrorist threats than does the US, and has been facing such threats for decades more than we have, suggest the Israelis may have a thing or two to teach us about dealing effectively with these threats.

In Mr. Gertler’s column he adds another argument against profiling, attributed to Michael Chertoff, former head of the Department of Homeland Security. Specifically, that profiling focused on a narrow group, male Muslims, would have failed to detect terrorists such as Jose Padilla, a Hispanic, or Colleen LaRose, a woman.

While this argument is certainly valid, it is irrelevant, and displays such a lack of basic understanding of Israeli-style security profiling one finds stunning in someone who for years led US efforts at safeguarding our home front.

Profiling “Israeli-Style” as part of Airport Screening

Israeli-style security screening profiling is not simply about race, religion, age, or gender. It is about suspicious behavior patterns. True, Israeli screeners are less likely to be a-priori suspicious of someone who appears to be non-Arab, and even less so if the person in question is female, elderly, and speaks fluent unaccented Hebrew. However, as someone who on many occasions was subjected to questioning by screeners at Ben Gurion Airport, I can attest that they do question even apparently less-suspicious people. All of them. Unfailingly. Every time.

The questioning starts out similar to what you might experience in a European airport when flying to the US. Who packed your bags? Have they been out of your sight since they were packed? Has anyone asked you to carry something for them? If you are not a fluent speaker of unaccented Hebrew, the questions might then extend to your reasons for visiting Israel, where you went while in the country, and where you stayed during your visit.

Where Israeli security screening diverges from screening elsewhere is in the training given to screeners in observing human behavior. When asking their innocuous questions, they look closely at the subject. If he (or she) starts squirming, sweating, or exhibits other symptoms of nervousness, he’ll be removed from the line and subjected to a private session of rigorous, in-depth questioning, possibly followed by an enhanced pat-down and, in extreme cases, a body cavity check.

Profiling, Done Correctly, can be the Solution for Screening at US Airports

Mr. Gertler and Mr. Chertoff both miss a crucial point, as do proponents of racial profiling. It is not about singling out young Muslim males, or any other racial or ethnic group. That would fail both the practical test, as Mr. Chertoff rightly asserts, and the constitutional test of equal protection under the law.

What security profiling should be about is human behavior. Innocent people, when asked more-or-less innocuous and reasonable questions tend to behave very differently from would-be terrorists subjected to the same questioning. It is the suspicious behavior patterns expected from the latter group that successful profilers can look for.

We Americans are enamored of our technology. Our tech-based intel, as practiced by the NSA, is unparalleled. It is only in recent years that we’ve begun to relearn what we used to know during WW-II and the Cold War. Namely that human intelligence is as critical to successfully protecting our national security as tech-based intel.

Similarly, as important and useful as screening technology is, it cannot and must not be the be-all and end-all of our airport security. Training screeners to be successful profilers may be more challenging than training them to look at a screen or aggressively pat down a passenger. However, such training will allow them to operate within the strictures of our Constitution, and at the same time increase the security of our flying public.

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