Security must target people not objects
By Michael Holden
LONDON (Reuters) – Security officials should concentrate on
people, not objects, at airports but simplistic racial
profiling is not the way to thwart potential attacks on
airlines, experts say.
They warn, however, that more effective behavioral
profiling would be very labor-intensive, expensive and would
not guarantee success.
“It’s the only methodology that can stay ahead of terrorism
and terrorists,” said Philip Baum, editor of British magazine
Aviation Security International. “Screeners are spending far
too long trying to confiscate scissors and shampoos and gels
from people who pose absolutely no threat.”
A debate over the merits of profiling — where security
staff focus their search efforts on people they regard as
suspicious on grounds such as ethnicity and religion — has
erupted since British police said on August 10 they had foiled
a plan to blow up transatlantic planes using liquid explosives.
Immediately, airports across Europe and the United States
tightened security: passengers were banned from taking liquids
or hand luggage on board and travelers were rigorously checked.
Some of those measures were later relaxed.
Baum said such actions, which caused airport chaos, flight
delays and cancellations, were unnecessary and ineffective.
“The existing technologies have been proven to have limited
effectiveness,” he told Reuters. “They haven’t as yet
identified anybody who has been carrying an improvised
explosive device on their person or in their baggage, whereas
profiling has been proven to be effective.”
The profiling debate has been fueled by the fact that the
suspects detained and charged in the airlines bomb plot were
all British Muslims, mainly of Pakistani descent.
Some of Britain’s 1.7 million Muslims have warned profiling
will widen the gulf between authorities and their communities.
Many Muslims accuse police of unfairly targeting their
community in a crackdown on terrorism after last year’s suicide
bomb attacks on London’s transport system by young British
LOOKING THE PART?
Some experts, including the former head of London’s police
force, say authorities should concentrate on profiling
potential suspects, with a particular eye on young Muslim men.
“I’m a white, 62-year-old, 6-foot 4-inch suit-wearing
ex-cop. — Do I really fit the profile of a suicide bomber?”
said former Metropolitan Police Commissioner John Stevens.
“Does the young mum with three tots? The gay couple, the
rugby team, the middle-aged businessman?”
A poll published in August after the airlines plot was
foiled found 55 percent of Britons backed passenger profiling
with just 29 percent opposed to the system.
Baum said he advocated a system of “positive profiling”
based on behavior, not ethnicity. “That is not racial
profiling. I totally disagree with racial profiling,” he said.
“You’re not exempting anybody from screening by technology
but you are determining which technology to apply depending on
the perceived risk a passenger poses.
“We are not saying all young Asian males are going to be
set aside for some separate screening by definition.”
However, that is exactly what many Muslims fear.
One of the country’s most senior Muslim police officers,
London Chief Superintendent Ali Dizaei, warned profiling could
create a new offense of “traveling whilst Asian.”
Profiling would also be costly because it would require
trained surveillance officers who could spot warning signs in
passengers’ behavior and also require efficient
cross-referencing of information about people’s itineraries.
Another problem lies in the fact that profiling is a
science in its infancy and a rather “blunt instrument,” said
Alex Standish, editor of Strategic Intelligence Review.
Profiling might not have caught British-born “shoe bomber”
Richard Reid, who tried to blow up an airliner in 2001 using
explosives hidden in his shoes.
“Reid wouldn’t necessarily have flagged anything up on
anyone’s radar,” he said. “Terrorist masterminds” might also
look for people who did not fit the expected profile, he added.
Standish said not enough research had been done to compare
the behavior of people carrying out criminal acts and those who
were about to commit a suicide attack.
“I think even the Israeli intelligence services would agree
they cannot possibly stop every determined would-be suicide
bomber,” he said.
“You simply have to develop the kind of intelligence
network to keep individuals under suspicion and their
associates under constant surveillance but it’s enormously
expensive, labor-intensive and you can’t afford to take your
eye off the ball.”
One way of improving the profiling procedure would be to
make checks closer to the departure gate.
“You will have different expectations of behavior on every
single flight,” Baum said. “The closer somebody gets to
boarding the flight the more chance you are going to get of
detecting behavioral signs as well.