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.