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Reason Foundation

The Case for Profiling Air Travelers

Robert Poole
December 10, 2010, 11:38am

One of the results of the recent TSA debates has been a full-blown campaign to demonize any proposal for risk-based airport security screening as “racial profiling.” In the much-talked about CBS News poll on airport security a few weeks ago, respondents were asked about their views on (1) body-scanning machines and (2) “racial or ethnic profiling”—as if those were the only choices available for American security policy. 

An attack on my long-standing advocacy of risk-based screening by two writers from The Nation included a three-paragraph excerpt from my recent blog post on the subject, followed immediately by a reference to “high-profile charlatans pushing racial profiling as the alternative to TSA pat-downs and body scans.” 

And it’s not only pundits on the left playing this game. Gabriel Schoenfeld of the conservative Hudson Institute attacked the strawman of “religious profiling” as an unacceptable alternative to body scans in an op-ed defending the TSA in The Wall Street Journal.

So I guess it’s time for a careful defense of real profiling—not the caricature that numerous opponents and some inexact supporters portray it as. 

Many security professionals separate “profiling” into two categories. The first, positive profiling, means using techniques such as detailed background checks and other factors to assign certain people to the “low-risk” category and treat them accordingly. 

The TSA itself recently (and rightly) conceded that airline flight crews—both cockpit and cabin—fit into this category, and will no longer have to undergo the demeaning security theater procedures the rest of us must face. Security resources, and taxpayer dollars, are not unlimited. Since we have already decided these pilots are trustworthy enough to fly planes with hundreds of passengers, it isn’t a good use of resources to pat them down or measure their shampoo bottles.

RAND Corporation has advocated positive profiling for many years, and the concept is the basis for a true Trusted Traveler program, in which frequent fliers who volunteer for and pass a stringent background check get a biometric ID card and can thereafter bypass some or all of the regular screening, just like flight crews will soon be able to do. I would also extend the Trusted Traveler concept to those holding federal security clearances. If we can trust someone with nuclear weapons secrets, shouldn’t we trust them to not blow up airliners?

Positive profiling is already in use by Customs & Border Protection (TSA’s sister agency) for people who are frequent border crossers, via at least three voluntary background-check programs: Global Entry for air travelers returning from abroad; Nexus, for frequent visitors to and from Canada; and Sentri, for frequent visitors to and from Mexico. If applied to airport screening, it would allow the TSA to shift resources from people who are not a threat to those who are more likely to be (and not just those trying to board planes, but also those loading baggage and cargo, visitors seeking targets in crowded ticket lobbies, etc.). 

It would also spare a large fraction of air travelers (primarily frequent fliers who voluntarily opt-in) from the wasted time and indignity of current screening practices. This can be an important safety tool because frequent business travelers do an estimated 50% or more of the nation’s flying. Recognizing that not everyone presents an equal threat allows security to focus resources on those that may present more danger.

There are some, including the ACLU, who argue against a Registered Traveler system because they say it will create a new vulnerability as terrorists learn to beat the background checks. Is this possible? Of, course. Anything is possible. We cannot eliminate all risks from flying or driving or anything else in life. But if terrorists are volunteering for FBI-quality background checks, undergoing interviews and credit checks, and ultimately obtaining trusted status then we have dramatically bigger security failures and problems than we imagined. It’s far more likely the terrorists would turn their attention to different, softer targets. 

With positive profiling reducing the number of travelers the TSA has to expend time and money on, the attention then shifts to negative profiling.  When most people hear the term profiling they envision people being grouped or targeted solely based on race or religion. When security professionals use the term negative profiling they mean deciding that a small subset of travelers deserves closer scrutiny due to some combination of background factors, previous travel behavior, and suspicious behavior at the airport itself. 

The TSA already does this type of profiling in a minor way: that’s what the selectee and no-fly lists are all about. We learned of some of these factors in the days after the 9/11 attacks. Buying a one-way ticket at the counter with cash was, and probably still is, something that would get you more attention from security. 

Previous travel history would have flagged the underwear bomber last Christmas since he paid for his ticket in cash, had recently flown out of terrorist haven Yemen, and his suspicious behavior at the airport (that you’d like a trained security guard to catch) reportedly included not having a jacket or any checked luggage despite flying from Amsterdam to Detroit during winter.

It is also important to note that negative profiling is already mandated—by the TSA—for those flying to the United States from the overseas airports it has defined as “extraordinary locations.” While I have not seen a list of those specific airports, both times I’ve flown back to this country from Madrid in recent years, I’ve been interviewed in some detail by employees of a private security company, under contract to the airline in question, as required by TSA’s Aircraft Operator Standard Security Program (AOSSP).

In short, profiling is a legitimate technique for deciding how to allocate security resources. Catching terrorists is tough. Making the TSA pat-down or body-scan every single person on every single U.S. flight (which the current policy calls for by the end of 2011) does not increase the chances they’ll find a terrorist (TSA has never found one). 

Pretending that everyone is equally likely to attack us wastes precious resources on low-risk travelers, which just makes us more vulnerable. Unless, and until, we adopt a risk-based airport screening system (i.e., forms of profiling), the TSA will continue to treat everyone as a potential suicide bomber and Americans will continue to be harassed and groped by TSA’s out-of-control screeners.


Robert Poole is Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow and Director of Transportation Policy


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