Monday, August 14, 2006

 

The Trouble With ‘Profiling’

The Today Programme this morning broadcast someone criticising airport security for carrying out checks on passengers like ‘grannies’, who ‘obviously’ aren’t terrorists, and called for passenger (racial) profiling instead. It was in my blearier part of the morning, so I can’t be certain who came up with this, though I think it was a representative of one of the airlines rather than the Daily Mail direct. Remember that several of the suspects arrested in the latest alleged terror plot are white, middle-class men described as ‘sons of the stockbroker belt’; might they not have been picked deliberately to beat ‘profiling’? So this particular ‘common sense’ argument – of the many always rattled off at times like these – seems even dimmer than usual this week.

If terrorist planners are clever enough to come up with ways round high-tech airport security scanners, it’s probably occurred to them to pick volunteers who don’t look like the Daily Mail’s idea of ‘a terrorist’ (oh, I dunno, though – that net’s probably spread pretty wide). Of course, it also makes sense for the authorities to treat everyone equitably because it’s fair, and seen to be fair; you’re much more likely to get Muslim co-operation, obviously, if you’re not ostentatiously victimising innocent Muslims of Asian descent but saying every white person is automatically a non-Muslim and automatically innocent.

So what are people calling for this sort of discriminatory ‘common sense’ actually asking for? Three things, mainly. First, they’re saying “I’m deeply shocked and offended that you should think I’m a potential terrorist.” Well, so is almost anyone who isn’t a terrorist. Next, they’re desperately trying to reassure themselves that “A terrorist can’t be someone like me or someone from my nice street,” which is entirely understandable but not exactly an intelligence-led security strategy. And, in policy terms, they’re then saying “Look, I don’t care what you do to anyone else, but I’ll kick up an enormous fuss if you do it to me. I want special treatment.”

Tough.

Comments:
Today's Indy has a piece about the profiling El Al use. Pregnant women are on the list, after an Arab duped his Irish girlfriend iinto carrying a bomb in her luggage.
 
As I said to someone in the comments on the Newsnight blog: if you don't think white people are terrorists, Google "David Copeland".

I was under the impression that several women had been arrested in connection with this latest plot, which suggests immediately that limiting searches to Asian men would be flawed.
 
Profiling is essential. What's more we all do it in our daily lives.

The problem comes when you start trying to implement a set of rules for profiling.
What is needed is for the security personel to be allowed to use their instincts, this works far better than having a list of likely traits...

Actually, implementing rules probably decreases security since it focusses people on a small number of things, which terrorists will learn to avoid.
 
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