Why we must profile airline passengers

December 28, 2009

Philip Baum2Philip Baum is the editor of Aviation Security International and the managing director of Green Light Limited, an aviation security training and consultancy company based in London. The opinions expressed are his own.

Whenever an individual manages to circumvent the security system designed to protect our airports, airlines and the people who use them, we ask why our countermeasures failed. And yet the real problem lies in our determination to screen everybody in exactly the same way using technologies that are not fit for purpose.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year old alleged perpetrator of the Christmas Day attack, should have been identified as a potential threat to the flight both in Lagos and again in Amsterdam. Here was a passenger who had bought an expensive ticket in cash in a country different to that of his port of embarkation or his intended destination, was traveling without any checked luggage for a two-week trip over the Christmas period, and about whom some agencies, and his father, had security concerns. It’s not rocket science we need; it’s the deployment of common sense.

Regrettably, regulators are loath to implement international profiling standards that would screen different passengers in different ways, for fear of being branded politically incorrect. Profiling is a risk analysis of a person or situation carried out by a trained, streetwise workforce. In terms of passengers, the aim is to analyze their appearance and behavior, along with their travel documents, and determine to what extent they meet our expectations for international air travel. The key advantage of profiling is that it responds to future threats as well as to those of the past and enables us to then select the right technology to screen passengers with. We are not going to ask all passengers to undergo a through-body X-ray, however safe such technologies are, but we could use the technology to screen those we have concerns about.

Detractors of profiling claim that decisions will be racially motivated, that we will start picking on young Asian men and that all Muslim passengers will be treated unfairly. Yet, the best examples of profiling actually working have identified people who do not meet such a stereotype.  Anne-Marie Murphy, a pregnant Irish woman identified as a potential threat to an El Al flight in 1986, is the best example – and she certainly did not fit the terrorist stereotype. As a result the 1.5 kg Semtex-based device concealed in her bag was identified.

The limited degree of profiling that is currently done has been proven to work, when it is properly applied and enforced by trained staff. Richard Reid, the “shoe-bomber,” was identified as a possible threat on 21st December 2001 and refused boarding; he returned the next day and managed to board. The Chechen Black Widows responsible for the downing of two Russian airliners in 2004, each carrying explosive charges on (or possibly in) their bodies, were initially refused boarding. They paid bribes to be accepted, with tragic results.

It is up to  security trainers to ensure that profiling decisions are based on logic rather than race, religion or skin color. In any case, aviation security is about preventing perpetrators of all acts of unlawful interference with civil aviation, such as unruly passengers, criminals and asylum seekers, not only terrorists, from boarding aircraft. Employers, meanwhile, will have to ensure that the screeners they employ have the requisite skill-set with which to perform their duties.

Profiling is subjective and profilers are human beings subject to making errors of judgement. Indeed, Abdulmutallab had been through a degree of profiling in Amsterdam on Dec. 25; whoever failed to identify him must have been either in a Christmas frame of mind or incapable of identifying the most obvious of documentary signs. Accordingly, profiling is not a substitute for screening, rather a requisite addition to the security process.

With this in mind, we need a system whereby a human determines which screening methodology should be applied to each passenger. Most people who look and act the part, as most people do, of the ‘normal’ law-abiding traveler would be subjected to standard screening, ideally without even having to take off their shoes or belts or dispose of any liquids. Those passengers whose intent is indeterminate may face questioning or screening using millimeter wave-based solutions, whilst those who we have genuine concerns about could undergo passenger X-ray or even be denied boarding.

I despair when I read of the latest security measures implemented to supposedly safeguard aviation. Just because Abdulmutallab allegedly carried out his attack 20 minutes before landing (which I would say was incredibly poor planning and not the mark of a sophisticated terrorist), passengers on flights to the U.S. are no longer allowed to stand during the last hour of their flight; nor can they cover themselves with blankets or have access to their hand baggage in this period of the flight. Not only do these measures demonstrate that the authorities recognise that the current security system is incapable of detecting the 21st century terrorist on the ground, prior to departure, but they also provide the terrorist with yet another victory. What they want is to disrupt our daily lives and they are succeeding.

Now is the time for us to seize the opportunity and set about replacing our antiquated approach to aviation security. We must look to the future and start to consider the unthinkable – chemical or biological weapons attacks, internally-carried devices, and devices infiltrated onto aircraft by airport workers. To do this we must finally accept that profiling is the only solution that works.


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We need some method to the madness indeed! Yesterday we came back to the US from YVR (Vancouver). We watched children under the school age being patted down without being allowed to hold their parents’ hands. Surely, there is a better way! And yes, the terrorists win every time they restrict our freedoms. We should use common sense on a more regular basis and be more proactive, not reactive.

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I agree entirely!
How do we go about promoting this idea?

Posted by TonyW | Report as abusive

The second paragraph of Mr. Baum’s article is astounding. How can we be such fools to put hundreds of innocent lives at risk so as not to offend someone who has so many known risk factors against him? Surely logic and objectivity – not to mention the rights of innocent victims and their families – can stand against blind ideology. Hopefully this will become an issue for the ballot box at our next opportunity.

Posted by John-B | Report as abusive

This makes sense. I am a young South East Asian man often travelling to and within US. Have seen 70 year old, mid-western, caucasian grandmas being put through the same security screening as what I am put through. Total waste of resources. The whole security system loses focus by spreading it so wide and thin. Profiling will help in giving that focus.
For such an effort to succeed, the skill set and training of the security personnel is extremely important. With all due respect to TSA, haven’t got the impression that, in general, they – at least the frontline staff at airports – are not what I would term as a bunch of top notch professionals. In the wrong hands, profiling could be a disaster – far worse than the system we have in place today. It could focus on the wrong set of people – harmless travellers – and let the real trouble makers get in relatively easy.

Posted by vivek_venu | Report as abusive

I agree. Profile Profile if it keeps our World a safer place to live, from people who are filled with hate. If I look like someone that may be a risk to our World search me – I welcome it. And any one who has a problem with being searched – that scares me. I agree to profiling.

Posted by Bella | Report as abusive

We have become so Politically Correct that we’ve thrown out common sense out of the equation. I used to blame the liberals for being more worried about the possibility of offending one particular group than for the safety of everyone else, but in reality; it’s our OWN damn fault for LETTING the liberals set the agenda.

Posted by Recamundo | Report as abusive

Of course it’s the liberals’ fault.

Posted by dushenko | Report as abusive

The most antiquated approach at issue here is the societal equation imbalance between allegedly knowing so much about who “they” are and how “they” think, while the “we” and the baseline principles behind “us” – yes, Everybody’s Human Rights, supposedly what it’s all about – are left so far out of account that they’re up for casual sacrifice the minute anything weird happens on any airplane.

Pretending that it’s the slightest bit contrary to PC thinking to make travel conditions any more arbitrary than they already are, and have been for too long, is a complete inversion of principle in any free society. That’s Soviet-Calibre PC, through and through.

It shouldn’t take “thinking like a terrorist” to figure out that the delivery of a grossly substandard, too often Balkan Squalid and creepily conformist travel experience is one which mirrors exactly what American airports and skinflint airlines are intent on serving up anyway – definitely not one worth having at any price.

Posted by HBC | Report as abusive

Are you kidding me! Have you seen some of the employees at TSA. They make $8.00 an hour and are not educated to handle the security necessary for terrorism. It looks good and makes people feel safe but that is it, it is a shell. Until this country (USA) takes the threat seriously and puts professionals (military) in place nothing will change and there will be more deaths. You can not expect the airlines to handle it because they are not in the security business. Full body scans, multiple check points, profiling are just a start. If you don like like the invasion of privacy – drive. We need to take a page from Israel or England on how it should be done. Get the measures implimented tomorrow and move on to the next threat.

Posted by JDD | Report as abusive

Imagine what a peaceful world it would be if there was no such thing as Islam

Posted by mohammedsadevil | Report as abusive

I remember US, Britain etc. objecting to death penalty for Islamics who are actively involved in smuggling, fanning disruptions in countries like China. The country has got the cheek to say that a terrorist and smuggler is a mentally challenged person. Imagine what would have happened if the country in whose territory, Britishers had sent islamic terrorist was not as mighty as China. US, Britain are reaping what they sowed… Jehadis. Jehadis are their babies. Jehadis are given active shelter by US and Britain provided they are working for interests of US and Britain.

Posted by UrghAllah | Report as abusive

This is the first sensible commentary I’ve read about security screening for a long time. The reaction by the authorities is asinine at best, useless at worst. The questions that are not being asked are:

-How did this guy get on the plane in the first place?
-Why does it necessitate the travelling public to be treated as criminals just for buying a plane ticket?
-Exactly what value for OUR money are we actually getting from these paid officials?
-Where are our elected officials defending OUR rights to be treated with civility, decency and legitimacy when we wish to travel?

That this happened in the first place is not good enough, and the post incident reaction by the supposed authorities is not good enough either. I am tired for being treated as both an imbecile and criminal anytime I wish to travel.

Posted by LondonObserver | Report as abusive

But who profiles the profilers? According to “SuperFreakonomics”, I and many of my former colleagues have the bank accounts of suicide bombers. Clearly, irrespective of whether or not they are properly implemented, profiling procedures can also be incompetently designed (as a Brit, I find the production of an Irish woman as “proof” that profiling isn’t racist somewhat piquant!), so we need some way – other than a death toll – of assessing the quality of proposed procedures.

Plus, it’s important to remember that terrorists aren’t stupid. At the moment they put effort into bypassing scanners because that’s what we rely on. If we started to rely on profiling, they’d start putting effort into circumventing that, too. The skills required to create sleeper cells aren’t exactly unknown to man.

Posted by Ian_Kemmish | Report as abusive

Profiling, while helpful, is not the be all and end all of the security measures which should be taken, it’s an important tool but it’s not the only one in the bag and effective security in transport requires that appropriate measures are applied to given circumstances. Indeed, I thoroughly agree with Philip that common sense has to prevail rather than as at present, prescriptive and restrictive routines that are too inflexible to be effective against a continually mutating threat.

Posted by tjacampbell | Report as abusive

political correctness will be the death of the freedom to travel by air.

Posted by lmunie | Report as abusive

mohammedsadevil, imagine what a peaceful world it would be without religion FULL STOP. In any case there’s no place in Aviation Security for religion, crime or politics; we do what we do because a few others indulge in them to the detriment of all!

Posted by tjacampbell | Report as abusive

and another thing! No, I’m not going to rant, but; this incident, yet again, exploited weaknesses in the system which are evident to anyone. Over reliance on technology, reluctance to carry out physical search and political rectitude which abhors any type of effective profiling for fear that it may be construed as ‘racist, mysoginist or any of the other *ists’. Let’s put it this way, the day I can’t walk down to a street corner in [insert any city of your choice] and score some cocaine (not that I do) is the day I’ll know that border/airport screening is 100% effective. It’s all about ‘Methods of Concealment’ and until that subject is taught effectively to screeners, I’ll be keeping a close eye on my fellow passengers every time I fly….not that it’ll do any good, just makes me feel important!!!!

Posted by tjacampbell | Report as abusive

Oh, and one thing more….Oi!!! you Customer Service lot out there! The best Customer Service that any organisation can give is the assurance of Safe Passage to the Client. That’s what AvSec is all about!

Posted by tjacampbell | Report as abusive

I totally agree with what Mr.Baum has mentioned about profiling.
It is a technique used to identify the “INTENT” through behavioral analysis NOT ethnic origins.
The profiler should be looking for the people behaving oddly or whose circumstances are different from the expected norm…
Is it normal for a transit passenger who is travelling on Christmas for two weeks !!! with no suit case checked ?
Not questioning this could only be a lack of Common sense…
How many incidents will it take for us to see that screeners fail to detect every potential threat?
It is our basic right to travel from point A to point B ALIVE!!!
I ,as a frequent passenger, would be happy to see profiling along with screening or any other technology that will provide extra security.

Posted by BCN | Report as abusive

[…] suggested we use. Behavioral profiling however does not involve race and is effective. Click this link for an excellent perspective on profiling and racial profiling by a very respected associate of […]

Posted by Practical Aviation Security Blog » Fixing the System | Report as abusive

Common sense; appears to be sadly lacking!
One can only conclude that there are socio-economic- religious reasons for this current condition.

Posted by ET1 | Report as abusive

I agree with Mr.Baum’s opinions mentioned above.
Profiling is identifying “INTENT” of a person through behavioural analysis.
Profilers should be looking for a passenger who is behaving oddly or whose circumstances are particularly different from the expected NORM.
May I ask,is it normal for a LAGOS transit passanger to travel to USA on Christmas for the weeks !!! with NO checked baggage?
A trained person who is doing the profiling would have noticed the oddness of such passenger and direct him/her for more technological scanners to go through a more detailed examination.This is common sense.What we see in this incident, is the lack of it.
Profiling when used together with technology will strengthen the security.
It is our basic right to travel from point A to point B ALIVE.

Posted by BCN | Report as abusive

Profiling is essential, but obtaining international political co-operation to achieve it is the challenge. Listening to the Nigerian politicians “washing their hands” of any responsibilty of the latest mis-guided brainwashed islamic fundamentalist youngster is typical.
Targetting Yemen and other failed States that are the breeding grounds of terrorism is top priority, more professional and better paid/motivated security staff at the front line is well overdue.

Posted by alscottie | Report as abusive

in principal i agree with philip but profiling is not the only security measure. responsible authorities and airlines must find an appropriate mix of screening and profiling. the latest body scanner is certainly a must. a full secondary screening is not a solution. it can be interpreted that one does not trust the first screening. as long as humans are involved there will be always errors. racial issues in my opinion have no space in security. we must leavethe profiling to absolute professionals well trained and experienced and not to regular screeners that earn a very low wage.

Posted by raventos | Report as abusive

I totally agree with the implementation of Profiling at major airports. Rather than spending millions of $$ on new technology at every point of entry, we should have a ‘regular’ check point equipped with at least 1 advanced explosive detection system. Rather than using it on every passenger, profiling will allow for a selected few to undergo a more thorough search.
The money we save on expensive technology could then be spent on better educated, better paid screeners.
We need to point out that not only profiling helps pinpoint a potential terrorist, but so far it has also been used to highlight other potential threats like drug violations, visa forgery, and smuggling of some sort.
The signs and non verbal clues given away by a criminal or unruly passenger are actually very similar to an individual ready to carry out an attack on civil aviation.
Let’s use this and let’s not hassle the vast majority of honest passengers…

Posted by FlorentW | Report as abusive

I totally agree with Mr. Baum. We need the best tools possible to keep aviation safe. And profiling is one.
However, even given the best tools, if people are not well trained and then coached adequately in their use, it becomes, unfortunately, the weakest link in the chain.
The proper application of the profiling tool also requires very good judgment capacities and an excellent sense of perception. So they also need to be selected with ultimate care as well as be well trained.
Another question would be how do we make sure that the standards are maintained at a high enough level throughout the aviation web-like security net?

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Profiling to is the best way to make the world a better place for right thinking people ti live in

Posted by asomaning | Report as abusive

Haleluhyia. Let us wake up to the risks that are right in our daily lives. Most often, we react to our shortcomings and this in itself is failure.It is high time we thought outside the box as that is the only way we can match the present terrorist

Posted by nighttosh | Report as abusive

Profiling should be no different than any medical scan. Terrorism has many of the same traits as a disease, in this case a disease of civilization. Preventing, finding, and removing these infectious cells can be similar to doing it with real cells. We don’t cat-scan or x-ray everyone, just those with symptoms.

Look at all the countries that quickly banned imports from countries that reported Mad Cow disease, Swine flu, and Bird flu, for example. Russia and China instantly began quarantining travelers with any symptoms, even those that sat within 10 feet of anyone with symptoms. They had fever scanners set up. Russia immediately banned imports of pigs from the U.S. and Mexico. The list goes on. The point is that diseases scare the hell out of people, and they often overreact. But the result is that the originating country, where the disease started, is the one put under tremendous pressure to deal with the problem, and then prove to the world they are OK. The burden shifted to them, not the importing country.

The same logic should, and eventually will prevail with terrorists, which are spawned, bred, trained, educated, and knowingly allowed to walk proudly in their country of origin. If they succeed, they become martyrs. Those countries should be treated like intentional “carriers” and “breeding grounds” for this new disease. It should become the responsibility for those country’s leaders – national, tribal, or family – to find and remove this problem for the survival of their own country. The cost should be shifted to them.

Any country that condones terrorism in any way, should be blacklisted and their travelers put automatically into a separate screening process. Besides all of the other logical clues for screening, mostly physical, national origin should therefore be key. Hate to say it, but the U.K. has allowed itself to also become a breeding ground for terrorists. We know the terms “Londonistan” and “Eurabia.” In any case, it’s better to implement tough profiling now as a security measure instead of waiting until we are hit with a full lockdown, when the problem becomes an overreaction, harder to fix, and economically much more costly.

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