Why we must profile airline passengers
Philip 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.