Issue Report: Airport security profiling

Is airport security profiling a good idea?

Profiling at airports has become hotly debate in recent years, following attempting airline bombings such as the 2009 Christmas Day Bomber, the Underwear Bomber, and others. The United States and other countries implemented broad scanning techniques in 2010 to counter such threats, which includes putting all or random passengers through revealing full-body scanners or, if a passenger opts-out of such a body scan, through an extensive “pat-down” by a security officer. Concerns over the invasiveness and effectiveness of this approach have caused many to call for profiling instead, which uses intelligence and information about passengers (such as travel history, duration of stay, ethnicity, religion, records of past actions, and behavior within the airport) to determine if they are a high or low risk. If a traveler is considered a high risk, they are ushered aside for enhanced body scanning, pat-downs, and questioning. If not, they can quickly move through the security check point. Many point to Israel as a successful example of such profiling techniques. Yet others are concerned about ethnic and religious profiling violating individual rights and anti-discrimination laws and possibly alienating the very groups whose hearts and minds are most needed in countering terrorism. These and other arguments are examined below.

Effectiveness: Is profiling an effective strategy?

Terrorists are most often Muslims; worth profiling them

Asra Q. Nomani. "Airport Security: Let's Profile Muslims." The Daily Beast. November 29th, 2010:

“As an American Muslim, I’ve come to recognize, sadly, that there is one common denominator defining those who’ve got their eyes trained on U.S. targets: MANY of them are Muslim—like the Somali-born teenager arrested Friday night for a reported plot to detonate a car bomb at a packed Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in downtown Portland, Oregon. We have to talk about the taboo topic of profiling because terrorism experts are increasingly recognizing that religious ideology makes terrorist organizations and terrorists more likely to commit heinous crimes against civilians, such as blowing an airliner out of the sky. Certainly, it’s not an easy or comfortable conversation but it’s one, I believe, we must have.”

Profiling is about using a range of information, not race

Sheldon H. Jacobson is a professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "The Right Kind of Profiling." New York Times Room for Debate. January 4th, 2010:

“One solution is to use information about passengers (voluntarily provided and readily assessable) to eliminate those who have negligible risk factors, which should be the case for 60 to 70 percent of passengers. Then apply state-of-the art technologies for the remaining pool of passengers, for which less information is known, and subject them to the highest level of security screening, and in some cases, not allow them to fly. We can call this behavioral profiling, information profiling, or whatever we wish. However, until we use security resources appropriately, we will never achieve a secure air system.”

Profiling will use such information as nervousness at airport.

Brigitte Gabriel, founder and president of ACT! for America, said in December of 2009: “We’re not talking only about profiling Muslims. We need to take a lesson from the Israelis. When you go through security checkpoints in Tel Aviv airport, you have very highly trained screeners. Someone who is about to carry on a terrorist attack acts nervous, acts suspicious [under such scrutiny].”

Profiling would have caught Christmas day bomber

Brigitte Gabriel, founder and president of ACT! for America, said in December of 2009 that profiling would have picked-up on would-be Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab: “He paid for his ticket in cash. He did not have any luggage. He has a one-way ticket to the United States. And he is coming to a religious ceremony. It doesn’t take more than two brain cells for anybody who is trained in this area to identify this guy as a bomber.”[1]

Terrorists don't fit a neat profile

Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. "Get the Intelligence Right." New York Times Room for Debate. January 4th, 2010:

“Many terrorism suspects came from within the United States and European Union countries. Profiling does not help against individuals with names and ethnic backgrounds like Richard Reid, Jose Padilla, David Headley and Michael Finton.”

Profile from one group and terrorists will recruit from another

Michael German, a former F.B.I. agent. "Wrong and Unworkable." New York Times Room for Debate. January 4, 2010:

“Racial profiling is also unworkable. Once aware of national profiling, terrorists will simply use people from “non-profiled” countries or origins, like FBI most-wanted Qaeda suspect Adam Gadahn, an American. What will we do? Keep adding more countries to the list of 14 until we’ve covered the whole globe?”

Terrorists can easily beat profiling systems.

Bruce Schneier. "Profiling Makes Us Less Safe." New York Times, Room for Debate. January 4th, 2010:

“And, even worse, profiling creates two paths through security: one with less scrutiny and one with more. And once you do that, you invite the terrorists to take the path with less scrutiny. That is, a terrorist group can safely probe any profiling system and figure out how to beat the profile. And once they do, they’re going to get through airport security with the minimum level of screening every time.”

Terrorists could dress and behave differently to avoid profiling.

Massoud Shadjareh, the chairman of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, said in January of 2010: “It’s not true that all terrorists are Muslims. Any such measure would not only alienate people, it would also be ineffective in terms of stopping terrorists. What’s to stop them dressing up as orthodox Jews in order to evade profiling-based searches?”[2]

Profiling counterproductively contributes to fear and insecurity.

Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said in December of 2009 after the Christmas Day Bomber incident: “While everyone supports robust airline security measures, racial and religious profiling are in fact counterproductive and can lead to a climate of insecurity and fear.”[3]

Profiling alienates groups needed in terrorism fight

Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. "Will profiling make a difference?" New York Times Room for Debate. January 4th, 2010:

“Treating all Muslims as suspects also undermines our efforts to gain intelligence on terrorists. We shouldn’t be profiling the very communities we need information from to catch the bad guys. Umar Abdul-Muttallab’s father gave us such information to prevent the Dec. 25 terror plot.”

Israel: Does Israel prove benefits of profiling?

Profiling works well for Israel, can work well elsewhere

Thomas Sowell, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. "Profiling at airports works for Israel." The Columbus Dispatch. November 24th, 2010:

“No country has better airport security than Israel — and no country needs it more, since Israel is the most hated target of Islamic extremist terrorists. Yet, somehow, Israeli airport security people don’t have to strip passengers naked electronically or have strangers feeling their private parts. Does anyone seriously believe that we have better airport security than Israel? Is our security record better than theirs? ‘Security’ may be the excuse being offered for the outrageous things being done to American air travelers, but the heavy-handed arrogance and contempt for ordinary people that is the hallmark of this administration in other areas is all too apparent in these new and invasive airport procedures. […] What do the Israeli airport security people do that American airport security do not do? They profile. They question some individuals for more than half an hour, open up all their luggage and spread the contents on the counter – and they let others go through with scarcely a word. And it works. Meanwhile, this administration is so hung up on political correctness that they have turned ‘profiling’ into a bugaboo. They would rather have scanners look under the clothes of nuns than to detain a Jihadist imam for questioning.”

Israeli style profiling system not scalable in America.

Mark Thompson. "Profiling, Political Correctness, and Airport Security." The League of Ordinary Gentleman. November 29th, 2010:

“I think it’s pretty clear that the reason a “profiling” system would not work and indeed has not been attempted in the US is that it’s not scaleable. Israel has one major airport, which by US standards would only be “mid-sized.” Yet look at the security line at that airport, which is more befitting of Newark or Atlanta than it is of Pittsburgh or St. Louis. A good profiling system is labor-intensive in a way that 0ur system simply does not have the capacity to implement, and would unacceptably undermine the numerous sectors of our economy that rely heavily on air transportation. And this says nothing of the direct economic costs of appropriately training and paying security officers charged with conducting the profiling. Nor, as the article above suggests, does it say anything about eliminating the bureaucratic infighting and secrecy amongst American intelligence agencies in a manner that would allow tens of thousands of airport security personnel access to the intelligence necessary to adequately do their jobs.”

Profiling makes far less sense in America than Israel

Mark Thompson. "Profiling, Political Correctness, and Airport Security." The League of Ordinary Gentleman. November 29th, 2010:

“None of this is to pretend that the Israeli system is race, ethnicity, or religion-neutral. However, it must be emphasized that the Israeli constitution is different from our constitution, and that the threats Israel faces from terrorism are both greater and different in nature than the threats we face.” [read full quote in argument page.]

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