By Robert W. Poole, Jr.
Director of Transportation Studies
In recent years when discussing a risk-based airport screening system, I have avoided using the word profiling, even though it’s a legitimate concept. Since most people hear the word “profiling” and immediately think “racial,” “ethnic,” or “religious,” I decided that the term itself confused more than it clarified.
But recent online discussions, including an attack on me by two writers for The Nation as a “high-profile charlatan pushing racial profiling as the alternative to TSA pat-downs and body scans,” has led me to change my mind. In a blog post last week for Reason magazine’s “Hit & Run” blog, I explained the legitimate meaning of evidence-based profiling, both positive and negative. (http://reason .com/blog/2010/12/10/the-case -for -profiling-air-tra)
Rather than repeat that argument here (please read the blog post), I’d like to elaborate a bit on how I envision negative profiling (i.e., identifying the high-risk category of travelers) would work. The idea would be to make full use of the various databases the government already maintains, using various intelligence sources, to assign more people to the “selectee” category for which secondary screening is mandatory. Only high-risk travelers, so defined, would be required to face body scans or intrusive pat-downs. Stewart Baker, a former DHS official, points out in National Review (Dec. 20, 2010) that the TSA’s sister agency, Customs & Border Protection, “knows a lot about [people’s] travel plans and uses a database ten or twenty times larger than the selectee list to decide who will be screened closely. And yet for 99 travelers out of 100, border screening is far less hassle—and far less of a privacy invasion—than air security.
The original anti-skyjacking system developed by an FAA task force in 1969-70 used a characteristics-based profile that was not challenged by the ACLU and was ruled constitutional by a New York Federal court. It included 23 elements, of which only half of one percent of air travelers met as many as six, according to David Brown, one of the task force’s members. But according to Brown, all 19 of the 9/11 hijackers would have been flagged by that system—had it still been in use in 2001.
Shifting aviation security from looking for dangerous objects to looking for dangerous people should be high on the agenda of the new Congress.