Why profiling at airports is a bad idea

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05/16/2012

Bruce Schneier makes a strong argument against the case for profiling at U.S. airports in his column for Forbes. In addition to believing profiling is a bad idea for a number of reasons—it's inaccurate, serves to alienate those "who are in the best position to discover and alert authorities about Muslim plots before the terrorists even get to the airport," and just plain wrong—he also argues that "it actually puts us all at risk."

Past events have proven that terrorists come in all shapes, sizes, sexes and skin colors—from Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, the Nigerian underwear bomber, to Jose Padilla, the Hispanic-American accused of plotting a dirty bomb attack on American soil. Terrorists will find ways to avoid profiing, which is why Schneier argues that randomized secondary screening is more effective because it creates too much uncertainty and acts as a deterrent. "Focusing on a profile increases the risk that TSA agents will miss those who don’t match it," Schneier writes.

Schneier points out that what people really want when they argue for profiling are TSA agents who can apply judgement in their decisions of who to screen more carefully. And with controversial headlines about TSA agents patting down wheelchair-bound senior citizens (including, last week, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger) and four-year-old girls, who doesn't think TSA agents may be a little out of touch with reality. (Though TSA agents did just last week discover weapons in a child's stuffed animals and an elderly person's walker.) Unfortunately, Schneier points out it's unlikely TSA agents will be applying good judgment any time soon. "Judgment requires better-educated, more expert, and much-higher-paid screeners." Schneier writes. "And the personal career risks to a TSA agent of being wrong when exercising judgment far outweigh any benefits from being sensible."

As usual, Schneier does a good job arguing against "security theater" and for sensible security practices that strike the right balance between managing risk and allowing people to travel without fear of molestation.