Airport passenger profiling -- not so simple

A new poll shows 70 percent of Americans support profiling that singles out terrorist suspects for extra screening. What's the best way to profile?

Must the entire flying public in America be subject to stepped-up screening: full-body image scanners or aggressive pat downs? What if security officials reserved that more intense search for terrorist suspects?

A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Nov. 23 shows that 70 percent of Americans support “profiling people, using available information about passengers in order to determine who gets selected for extra security screening at airports.”

Profiling – famous in Israel – is often discussed as an alternative to the all-passenger strategy in the United States.

It’s important to distinguish between smart profiling, and the ineffective kind. Tempting as it may be, profiling based on race, religion, gender, and even country is not efficient.

Male, Muslim, and Arab, for instance, is simply too broad a category to be of much use. Those characteristics may accurately identify a person, but they don’t predict behavior. The vast majority of people who fit that description are not terrorists.

That profile also has glaring exceptions: “Jihad Jane,” the blond, middle-aged white American; the female “black widow” Muslim bombers of the Moscow Metro; Richard Reid, the half-West Indian, half-Englishman with a British passport and English accent to match.

If security officials latch on to these broad profiles, terrorists will recruit those who don’t fit. Indeed, in May, the Department of Homeland Security dropped profiling travelers to the US from 14 mostly Muslim countries. It had set up that filter after the attempted Christmas Day bombing.

Instead, US officials are trying to improve profiling based on behavior and intelligence: no-fly and watch lists, personal data, travel histories. Israel does this, too, and much more: a security check point for cars entering the airport, a screening process that has passengers arriving four hours before departure, and methods that can be far more intrusive than in the US.

Note, too, that Israel has only two commercial airports to secure; the US has 450.
The Bush administration tried to ramp up data collection on individual flyers, but dropped it after loud complaints from the travel industry and civil-liberties groups.

Many Americans now recoil at the intensified physical inspection. But how much more personal data would they be willing to share to avoid it? If profiling is a preferred method, Washington has its work cut out for it.

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