Thursday, August 17, 2006

Airport Profiling: Clap Your Hands and Shout, "I Believe"

In the wake of last week's announcement about the thwarting of a supposed terrorist plot aimed at airliners flying from Britain to the US, calls for racial, behavioral, and personal profiling of travelers are once again on the rise.

Never mind that the actual evidence for last week's plot now appears to be increasingly shaky. Never mind that airport profiling actually played no role whatsoever in uncovering the plot. (The arrests were based on good old-fashioned police work, the kind that John Kerry was blasted for advocating by Republicans who insisted that invading Iraq was far more relevant to keeping our skies safe from terrorists.) Never mind all of that. The calls for profiling aren't based on logic. They're based on the undoubted fact that no one likes having shampoo and hairspray barred from their carry-on bags. Wouldn't it be easier for all of us good guys if the bad guys could simply be detected by TSA personnel with magic x-ray eyes, like the ones they have in Israel?

Well, according to today's New York Times, the TSA is indeed working to develop those magic x-ray eyes:

Taking a page from Israeli airport security, the transportation agency has been experimenting with this new squad, whose members do not look for bombs, guns or knives. Instead, the assignment is to find anyone with evil intent.

So far, these specially trained officers are working in only about a dozen airports nationwide, including Dulles International Airport here outside Washington, and they represent just a tiny percentage of the transportation agency's 43,000 screeners.

But after the reported liquid bomb plot in Britain, agency officials say they want to have hundreds of behavior detection officers trained by the end of next year and deployed at most of the nation's biggest airports.

"The observation of human behavior is probably the hardest thing to defeat," said Waverly Cousin, a former police officer and checkpoint screener who is now the supervisor of the behavior detection unit at Dulles. "You just don't know what I am going to see."
Unfortunately, the techniques being employed by these so-called SPOT teams seem highly dubious, even to those who developed them. The psychology professor who helped the TSA set up the program using facial clues he developed says, "It may be the best that can be done now, but it is not nearly good enough." The Israeli security expert who helped train the SPOT officers says that the TSA's program focuses too much on supposedly magical facial-reading techniques and too little on smart questioning of suspects: "If you don't do the interviews properly, you are missing what is probably the most important and powerful part of the procedure." And even the officer charged with administering the program (and defending it to reporters) admits it's more of a random search technique than some kind of laser-precise spotlight:

"It is like throwing a big fishing net over the side of the boat: You catch what you catch," said Carl Maccario, an agency official helping manage the SPOT teams. "But hopefully within that net is a terrorist."
Yeah, hopefully. But if not? No matter--it'll only be suspicious, mostly dark-skinned people who get swept up in the net, not good people like you and me.

But, again, logic is not behind the demands for profiling. I wonder how many of the profiling advocates have ever grumbled--as I certainly have--about the apparently low qualifications for TSA personnel. Now we're supposed to believe that the same workers whom we find annoying when they have trouble scanning our bags or wanding our bodies correctly are going to develop super-human mind-reading abilities. Somehow I don't find this plausible.

In his latest New Republic screed demanding profiling, Martin Peretz admits as much: "It is hard to imagine the current crop of Transportation Security Administration employees deployed in U.S. airports performing this delicate function." But Peretz desperately wants to believe it's possible. So he falls back on the example of Israel and the allegedly miraculous x-ray vision employed by its security personnel. Here's the story he tells to demonstrate it:

Do you remember the days when student air discount tickets were available for almost anybody not obviously in middle age? Well, some twenty years ago, a friend of mine, an American who was living in Rome and working in advertising, was to meet me in Israel. He had purchased a bootleg El Al student ticket. When he arrived at Da Vinci Airport, he was greeted by a genial security officer. She looked at his passport and then his ticket. "Oh, you are a student," she exclaimed. "What do you study?" Fishing out of nowhere and quickly, Bill said, "Architecture." "So, tell me," asked his questioner, "when was Palladio born?" He did not get on the plane till the next day when his innocence of malevolent intent was vouched for and proven. Now that is security.
Excuse me, but how is this a story of effective security? Peretz's friend was not a terrorist. He was an ordinary, harmless traveler who was nervous for a trivial and unrelated reason. Detaining such a man, disrupting his life, and perhaps panicking family and friends who were waiting for him is not a triumph of brilliant police work. It's a stupid mistake--the kind of mistake that will happen by the thousands if we set SPOT squads loose on the two million passengers who travel by air in the US every day.

My apologies to all those who want to believe in magic, but this is a solution that is worse than the problem.

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