The Problem with Profiling
With the recent U.K. terror plot to blow up airliners with liquid bombs, there has been lots of discussion on the radio talk shows (at least the ones I’ve listened too) that make a big deal about profiling and how it would be an effective screen against terrorists. There is only two problems with this and those problems were born with the names Don Steward-Whyte and Oliver Savant, two white converts to Islam.
So far in all the bloviations I’ve heard on the radio, nobody seems to mention that these two gentlemen are white and converts to Islam and could very well be Islamic extremist. Everybody focuses on the names and from there assumes that all the people arrested in connection to the plot are Pakistani (and to be sure, most of the people arrested are of Pakistani descent).
The problem with profiling is the Carnival Booth effect. The strategy of terrorist could use to circumvent a profiling system such as CAPS (see the link for a description)1 is to send people through the airline screening system and see which one’s get caught. Eventually, the terrorist organization will learn enough about the profile to circumvent it, possibly with white converts to Islamic extremism such as Stewart-Whyte, Savant and also Johnny Walker Lindh. Similarly terrorists groups might look to females and also female converts.
Further, people get upset when they see that grandma has been selected for additional scrutiny or that the mother with an infant was selected, etc. The problem here is that random searches are a way of defeating the Carnival Booth strategy. With random screening there is no way to learn what will allow you to slip past the screening. And for something to be random, this means that periodically grandma might have to undergo further scrutiny, Jr. might have to have his bad of toys inspected, and so forth. After all, if you start exempting certain passangers then the random searches are no longer random.
Some people, e.g. Ann Coulter, have argued that the random searches and lack of profiling is due solely to political correctness. Maybe they are right, but there is a non-politically correct reason to reject profiling, at least by itself and with the simple form many advocates seem to favor. Making profiling more subtle so that those who are profiled are unaware of their being flagged is one solution. Since people flagged are unaware they have been flagged there is no way to learn what the profile is. This could be done by devising better methods of scannning both checked luggage as well as carry on luggage. If this can’t be done, then profiling isn’t all that helpful, and in fact could provide a false sense of security when the reality is quite the opposite.
[Note: Initially I was in favor of profiling, but have since changed my mind as this strategy looks like it is too easy to beat. Note that this isn’t any kind of nonsense PC consideration, but purely a strategic/security issue. Do try to keep this in mind when posting comments.
Also, note that CAPS and CAPS II are no longer in effect, the new system is called Secure Flight, but from what I’ve read so far has been built off of CAPS and some of CAPS II, so it again looks like a profiling system. Funny, those in favor of profiling seem unaware that profiling has been going on.]
1 From the link above,
This transparency [knowing you’ve been flagged by CAPS] is the Achilles’ Heel of CAPS; the fact that individuals know their CAPS status enables the system to be reverse engineered. You, like Simonyi, know if you’re carryons have been manually inspected. You know if you’ve been questioned. You know if you’re asked to stand in a special line. You know if you’ve been frisked. All of this open scrutiny makes it possible to learn an anti-profile to defeat CAPS, even if the profile itself is always kept secret. We call this the “Carnival Booth Effect” since, like a carnie, it entices terrorists to “Step Right Up! See if you’re a winner!” In this case, the terrorist can step right up and see if he’s been flagged.