The Pebble and the Avalanche

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Current Revolutions in Business and Technology

by Dr. Moshe Yudkowsky,

author of The Pebble and The Avalanche: How Taking Things Apart Creates Revolutions


Mon, 2010-Nov-29, 09:15

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The Fallacy of Profiling

I'd like to address a particularly silly notion about airport security: profiling. The idea is that security personnel should profile certain ethnic groups and select them for special scrutiny, and devote less time to other ethnic groups and religions.

The argument for profiling rests on several assumptions, and all of them are either flat-out wrong or are based on ideas that have not been fully thought out. These ideas include:

  • Israelis profile passengers to provide the world's best security.
  • Profiles will fix current Transportation Security Agency problems, such as three-year olds placed on special watch lists.
  • Profiles increase security by focusing on likely suspects.
  • Profiles are feasible, affordable, and accurate.
Let's tackle these one by one.

The Israelis do not profile passengers according to race or religion. The Israelis examine each and every passenger as he or she arrives at the airport and at multiple checkpoints, to look for behavior or history that requires further scrutiny. Security is not confined to "risky population groups," i.e., Moslems or people with dark skins; risk assessment extends to every passenger. In the most famous case, a pregnant Irish woman attempted to board an El Al flight; after questions indicated risk because of the woman's associates, the Israelis dismantled her luggage and found that, unknown to her, the unborn child's Arab father had concealed a bomb in the woman's luggage.

Ethnic and religious profiling will not solve the TSA's problems with passengers on the no-fly list or the watch list. Even during the darkest days of Nazi terror in Europe, you could walk into the local Gestapo outpost, argue with commander, and sometimes get a person released from a concentration camp. Here in the US, the TSA will place you on a watch list for reasons they won't disclose and apparently will never take you off. Tens of thousands of people undergoe special scrutiny because somewhere, someplace there's an alleged terrorist with a vaguely similar spelling or pronunciation. The TSA deliberately does nothing about absurd situations such as three-year olds on the watch list; no person at the agency is willing to take the risk to his own personal career of taking a person off the list in case that particular person really turns out to be a terrorist. This is an institutional problem that we can expect in any secretive agency, especially one that does not have to respect due process of law. Profiling will not fix that problem; profiling will likely make the TSA act even worse.

I should mention at this point that the TSA already does profile according to behavior; they just do it very badly. When my wife or daughter fly in the summer they are often selected for additional screening because (as religious Jews) they do not wear sleeveless shirts or shorts. This triggers the primitive "behavioral" screening procedures used by the TSA, regardless of the fact that hundreds of women pass through the airport in such clothing every day. Worse yet is the complete illogic of the the screening: why is long skirt a security risk in the summer but not in the winter? Being "different," particularly in a diverse society, is not the same as acting suspiciously.

Ethnic and religious profiles do not increase security — they degrade security. For the sake of discussion, let's accept the incorrect premise that only Moslems wish to destroy or interfere with US airplanes. Let's further assume that just like in other places around the world we will one day see female suicide bombers in the United States. The argument that "the TSA should not frisk nuns" means that female suicide bombers will dress up as nuns, nurses, business women, and the like. Security should focus on behavior and risk factors; if a nun triggers suspicions she should not be immune from a pat-down search.

Finally, religious and ethnic profiling won't work because we don't have information about religion and ethnicity. Unlike other countries, I don't have my religion stamped on my identity papers. Would any sane white or black citizen in the US confess to being a Moslem if that means hassling from "security" at every airport, train station, and drivers license facility? How will the government verify my religious affiliation? Will the government open a dossier on every person in the US and examine his religious background for suspicion of unreported Islamic sympathies? What about FBI investigations for the taint of "risky" ethnic background? Reliable ethnic and religion-based profiling requires a level of intrusive government scrutiny that would cost us vast amounts of money and above all our precious remaining shreds of privacy and dignity.

Or will the TSA personnel simply guess at religion, political beliefs, and ethnicity by looking at people's skin color?

If we do profile according to race and religion, we will introduce a profound change in US society: in public spaces and our every day life, the official policy of the US government will be to exercise its police powers differently for different people, based on ethnic and religious background. The most basic, fundamental principle of the US is that everyone — everyone — is equal before the law. And in this case as so many others, it's not only sound ideology, it's the policy that works best.

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