This page considers passenger profiling, something that
is recurrently - and often bizarrely - promoted as a highly
effective mechanism for managing threats posed by terrorists
and drug traffickers.
It covers -
- what is passenger profiling?
- ethnic, behavioural and other screening
- justice, effectiveness, cost and other issues
- the status of profiling under national and international
- profiling in Russia, the UK and elsewhere
- community stances on profiling
- selected works on passenger profiling
Passenger profiling has three aims -
identify individuals who might be threats to other travellers,
eg might be seeking to destroy or take over an aircraft,
bus or train
identify individuals who might be carrying contraband,
in particular drugs
legitimate the existence of particular agencies.
provides a basis for searches
of individuals, with people who have particular characteristics
being singled out for what can range from ad hoc scrutiny
of baggage to detailed questioning and an inspection of
body cavities. Its premise is that 'intensive' searching
of every traveller is neither economically nor politically
viable, so only 'suspects' should be bothered.
It also embodies - and for many people reinforces - perceptions
that critics consider involve stereotyping and ethnic
or other discrimination. It has been promoted as a key
weapon in the 'war on terror', particularly in conjunction
with use of watch lists
and wider data mining activity. It has been criticised
as both philosophically and administratively flawed, with
claims for example that profiles can be readily subverted.
Contrary to claims by some enthusiasts, profiling is neither
new nor scientific. It is evident in screening of incoming
overseas passengers at Australian airports over the past
40 years. It is also evident in debates in US criminology
during that period, particularly about racial profiling
(searches of people 'guilty of the crime of driving while
black'). It is not necessarily restricted to air travellers.
In considering passenger profiling we can identify four
types of profiles -
In practice none appear to be wholly effective filters
and many regimes use two or more profiles in conjunction
with other tools.
Demographic profiling sorts people on
the basis of attributes such as age, income and travel
patterns. It is the basis of traditional border security
In Australia, for example it has been claimed over the
past 30 years that you are more likely to be pulled aside
for examination if you
young (particularly young and working class) and are
returning from a holiday in Bali or other parts of Asia
- the presumption being that you are more likely to
be smuggling drugs on a one-off basis than a granny
who is on the same flight
travel to particular locations such as South America,
the Middle East and China, especially on short stay
visits - profiled as a drug courier
unaccompanied middle-aged male returning from Cambodia,
Thailand, the Philippines or other locations identified
as permissive to 'sex tourism'
(or ethnic/religious) profiling has gained attention through
debate over discriminatory aspects of 'racial profiling'
in air travel security since 9/11, with indications that
both government agencies and airlines are concentrating
searches on Muslims and on people from the Middle East.
It reflects an assessment that you are significantly more
likely to be a terrorist if you are young, male, Islamic
and have visited states such as Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan,
Jordan and Iran. In practice that appears in some situations
to be reduced to the slur that 'all Muslims are terrorists
or want to be'. Precursors prior to contemporary jihads
included profiling of Eastern and Southern European (particularly
Jewish Eastern European) visitors and migrants to fin
de siecle Britain, France, Germany and the US ...
anarchism, pornography, epidemic disease and assassination
were conceptualised as imported by excitable, poor and
Behavioural profiling relies on the observer's
skill in detecting indications that something might be
amiss. Unsteady gait, poor eye contact, perspiration,
defensiveness in response to questioning and shakiness
in handing over tickets or passports might signal that
it is appropriate to question that person or conduct a
detailed search of baggage.
The profiling concerns behaviour rather than ethnicity;
it has had some success in detecting drug traffickers
and terrorists who do not fit into the above templates.
It is, however, heavily dependent on the skill of the
observers and the availability of such observers.
Positive profiling, currently being promoted
in the US, involves separating travellers into two groups:
ordinary people (taken to be more suspect than their peers)
and those bearing special traveller identification (gained
after a vetting process and supposedly attesting that
they are significantly less of a threat than the common
herd). Those with a positive profile pass through security
checkpoints more quickly and are less likely to undergo
ad hoc examination, as are of 'known quality'.
Contemporary US schemes centre on the individual gaining
a 'frequent traveller card', requiring a notional payment
to offset the cost of personal vetting. The expectation,
in the words of former US federal security supremo Richard
Clarke, is "that allows the inspectors then to concentrate
on people who they really don't know anything about".
In practice it is an extension of traditional demographic
schemes and diplomacy that favoured elites. First class
passengers (typically white, middle aged and middle/upper
class) were assumed to have signalled their bona fides
merely by wearing suits and having more resources than
the lower classes. The bags and persons of diplomats enjoyed
Concerns regarding profiling essentially fall into three
of those concerns have led proponents to emphasise use
of complementary technologies, including the tools discussed
in subsequent pages of this note.
Critics have suggested that governments and transport
network operators should instead
on a basket of technological measures, including strengthening
of aircraft bulkheads and deployment of advanced explosive-detection
actively seek to avoid perpetuation of stereotypes,
something that might involve an emphasis on purely random
searches and concommitant public education about security
criticism reflects a respect for human
rights. It also reflects recognition that terrorists
aspire to set an agenda - "they do not do what you
expect, they do what you least expect" - and may
regard the inconvenience imposed by tightened security
as a small victory for their cause.
Security agencies are understandably reticent about their
performance and it is difficult to benchmark particular
practice. the effectiveness of much profiling is however
unclear and caution should be adopted in embracing claims
that an emphasis on "suspect groups", particular
comprehensive examination of all members of a group, will
necessarily and significantly increase security.
One criticism of much profiling is that it is easily subverted.
If "long haired kids with a sun tan and a backpack"
are targeted, use "desperate grannies or dads"
as drug mules. If profiling centres on status, wear a
suit and fly first class. If profiling and security is
concentrated on air travel, blow up subway trains and
buses rather than passenger jets. If ethnicity is the
filter, use 'non-ethnic' agents (meanwhile arguing that
security embodies racial/religious persecution). If names
are targeted (one of the sillier comments is that "fanatical
Islamic converts always use a new name"), illicitly
obtain a legitimate passport, for example by using the
identity of a dead child
or simply bribing an official.
One contact thus noted detection by El Al staff at Heathrow
in 1986 of an attempt to destroy one of its planes. White,
female and Roman Catholic Anne Murphy had passed through
the airport's security screening without trouble. El Al
staff, apparently on the basis of behavioural profiling,
discovered that her hand luggage featured 11 ounces of
Semtex and a detonator in a calculator kindly provided
by a boyfriend with links to the Libyan government. (El
Al's attentiveness means that it is one of the safest
New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly more tartly
think that terrorists aren't aware of how easy it is
to be characterized by ethnicity? ... Look at the 9/11
hijackers. They came here. They shaved. They went to
topless bars. They wanted to blend in. They wanted to
look like they were part of the American dream. These
are not dumb people. Could a terrorist dress up as a
Hasidic Jew and walk into the subway, and not be profiled?
Yes. I think profiling is just nuts
critics have commented that by identifying those classes
who we believe should be subject to special attention,
we are implicitly making life easier for those who do
not fit that profile.
Passenger profiling is an attempt to solve a conundrum
- significantly reducing security threats (and problems
such as drug trafficking) without inconveniencing individual
passengers and causing delays that increase costs borne
by transport network operators and thence by passengers
In practice much profiling appears to be about gestures
rather than realities, legitimating governments and individual
agencies - and more broadly reassuring people that 'something
is being done' - without incurring true costs.
In the US and Australia, for example, there are recurrent
indications that security at baggage handling at airports
is poor, with incidents where handlers have appropriated
baggage and have obtained jobs despite criminal records.
Security staff engaged in passenger screening at US airports
have been criticised as over-zealous, racist, criminal
or merely incompetent - unsurprising as most are employed
by the private sector, on low wages and with little training.
Some are not even US citizens.
Comprehensive and more intensive screening of carry-on
and in-hold luggage would impose tangible delays - highlighted
in RAND's 2004 The Benefits of Positive Passenger
Profiling on Baggage Screening (PDF)
- that are opposed by most airlines and in practice are
unlikely to be applied to surface mass transport systems.
One UK critic of contemporary passenger profiling commented
that it introduces a new crime of "travelling whilst
Asian", reminiscent of earlier US characterisation
of the "crime of driving while black". Ethnic
profiling is necessarily and inappropriately discriminatory.
It has thus attracted criticism that it is illegal under
international law, as discussed below, and should be illegal
under national law because inconsistent with anti-discrimination
policies. It reinforces perceptions that all members of
a particular group are likely to be guilty of an offence
and are undeserving of the protections afforded to other
people by the justice system.
It can be contrasted with profiling that has a more substantive
basis, eg behavioural profiling predicated on attributes
other than gender, ethnicity or religious affiliation.
It can also be contrasted with random investigation, something
that is more likely to catch offenders who do not fit
into a specific template.
Responses to the legality of profiling vary, given perceptions
of threat, assessments of risk and exemptions in international
and national law for public security (especially in locations
such as borders).
Behavioural and demographic profiling, unsurprisingly,
is permitted. However, most states (including Australia)
make some effort to reduce arbitrariness of selection
and minimise abuses in the conduct of searches (eg control
inspection of body cavities).
In principle ethnic profiling is unlawful under international
law, given the range of global human
rights agreements prohibiting racial and ethnic discrimination.
The United Nations Race Convention for example prohibits
racial discrimination regarding "freedom of movement"
and the "right to equal treatment before the tribunals
and all other organs administering justice".
The International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights
(ICCPR) similarly prohibits racial discrimination in relation
to "the right to liberty and security of the person",
"arbitrary arrest or detention" and deprivation
of liberty "except on such grounds and in accordance
with such procedure as are established by law". The
latter qualification is significant: states can and do
establish laws and protocols that restrict the effect
of non-discrimination principles in emphasing principles
of public safety and national security.
Debate about balances between safety and discrimination
has been reflected in a range of international and regional
statements. The 2000 UN World Conference Against Racism
for example exhorted states to "design, implement,
and enforce effective measures to eliminate the phenomenon
popularly known as racial profiling".
The Open Society Justice Initiative's 2006 report Ethnic
Profiling in the Moscow Metro (PDF)
indicated that riders on the Moscow Metro who appear non-Slavic
are over 20 times more likely to be stopped by police
than those who look Slavic. Riders who appear non-Slavic
make up less than 5% of all patrons but account for over
50% of all people stopped by the Moscow Metro police.
Attitudes to ethnic and other profiling are distinctly
In the US for example whereas 80% of participants in a
Gallup Poll condemned racial profiling in 1999, 58% of
those surveyed shortly after 9/11 agreed that US airlines
should subject 'Arabs' (including those who are US citizens)
to special, intensive security checks before boarding
Among the literature on profiling see in particular
Racial Discrimination (2004) - US National Academies
James Goldston's 'Toward a Europe Without Racial Profiling'
(2005) in Justice Initatives
Bias: Racial Profiling Since 9/11 (2004) - ACLU
Harris' Driving While Black: Racial Profiling On
Our Nation's Highways (1999) - ACLU
Mullen's Dangerous Strangers: Minority Newcomers
and Criminal Violence in the Urban West, 1850-2000
(New York: Palgrave 2005)
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