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August 15, 2006


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It's an interesting problem, if we can get around some of the emotional aspects. I noted that the two (I think it was two) men arrested recently because of buying large quantities of cell phones in the upper Midwest were apparently of Mideast origin, based on their names. They were reported for buying a lot of phones. Unusual, maybe, but is that illegal? Or were they reported and then stopped because of their appearance? There are reports of some suspicious things found in their belongings; it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

It's probably not such a bad idea to do the sort of "reverse" profiling, eliminating people who are rather obviously not terrorists. But you'll still get the same people complaining that it amounts to the same thing as regular profiling.

I dunno. As irritating as it is, perhaps it is better to set a policy and apply it evenly.

This idea that security measures or countermeasures against people who look like Islamists is "causing" anger is total bullshit.

These groups are angry at western prosperity and western happiness. They are angry at modernity. They are angry at women. They are angry at anyone who would question their 'beliefs.' They are angry at anyone who draws cartoons of their 'prophet.' How could they get any more angry??

Instead of going to school to learn science, they study the Koran. Instead of studying psychology and critical thought, they study the Koran. Instead of learning how to negotiate with their women and treat them as equals, they wrap them up in cloth bags, and then they go read their Koran.

No. I'm sorry. If a bunch of backward radicals want to start war against society from within, they had better be prepared for the response. And they should have thought about the effects on people who looked like them before they started this war.

These bullshit arguments are simply a cover to buy the militants an easier road on the way to their next attack. It's typical wartime propaganda, I might add.

Oh, did I say bullshit?

Not sure if racial profiling is a good idea.

After all, the first Australian muslim terrorists arrested were ethnically Anglo-Celtic.

Limited resources should be focused upon people who act suspiciously, not look suspiciously. Wasting scarce resources on hassling a particular ethnic group wouldn't have been much use if one of these guys had been ignored because of their appearance.

I sometimes wonder if the current state of terror has been exploited by those who look for any excuse to push a racially divisive agenda. And I'm not just taking about Islamist radicals, either.

The thing is, searching everyone with the same level of security is not so much a question of political correctness as it is a question of security. When you decide to focus on a group of individuals based on what Bruce Schneier calls "dumb" characteristics, you are going to have dumb security that can be exploited.

The problem here is that dumb profiling like this assumes generalities where no generalities exist. The frequent comment is that it is stupid to search 75-year-old grandmothers because they don't bomb airplanes, but that is just an assumption based on a generality; that is, no grandmothers have blown up airplanes in the past, and the grandmothers that the person making the statement know in everyday life don't seem the type to do this.

Terrorist acts, however, are exceptions to the normal rules of the game, and are not things that can be prevented by playing the odds. If we assume that grandmothers don't blow up airplanes and therefore don't check them, then we open ourselves up to an exploit. A smart terrorist group then starts looking for a grandmother that will blow up an airplane -- or at least will allow herself to be used as a pack mule -- and our security apparatus is then blown.

You mention distribution of resources, and that is a valid concern. However, if we don't allocate those resources intelligently then by concentrating our resources in one area we have only opened ourselves up to exploits in another area. Profiling based on a checklist of things like religion, ethnicity, where someone went to University, and so on is not an effective form of security because it is too easily exploited. That's why this is a bad idea.

More on this subject here, here, and here.

BlackSun: You're absolutely right, but you're also wrong. I do not favor coddling those who have stupid ideas. Nobody does.

But here is the trouble: Can you tell, just by looking at them, who has the stupid ideas?

All the extremist organisations have to do is to spread false rumours of an impending attack and they achieve at least part of their aim.

I wouldn't be surprised to find this latest "victory" was a set-up. The police are already applying to judges for more time to question their suspects, so they don't seem to have anything concrete.

It seems to me very strange that a terrorist cell would be so sloppy as to leave a trail for the intel services to follow, but be squeaky-clean and sterile in all other respects. I wouldn't be surprised if all these suspects were quietly released without charges in the next few weeks and then sue for compensation.

I think Moonbiter makes some good points, but I have to raise one exception: What if the police force has limited resources, and can only check, let's say 25% of the people boarding planes? If almost all terrorists in the past have been men in their 20's and 30's, then it would seem to make sense to focus on this group with the manpower you have. It's more likely to catch terrorists than random checking up until the terrorists get smart.

And, to be honest, that hasn't happened yet (well, from those guys attacking us). We don't have profiling coded into law, but the terrorists know that they're going to face more suspicion if they appear to be Muslims, and they haven't been doing anything to change it.

Now, here's another interesting argument in favor of profiling: In the wake of an attack by Muslims, the public is always more suspicious of Muslims, so innocent Muslims face undue persecution. But, what if the people sitting on the airplane know that any Muslims on the plane have faced higher scrutiny and the officials have confirmed that they don't pose a threat? Fear and suspicion would go down. In this way, profiling might actually be decreasing the prejudice Muslims feel.

The problem with any screening is that it is simply impossible, or impractical at best, to screen everyone. Random screening is the solution of choice in the US right now, but that results in absurd situations. While a 75-rear-old grandma with her 2-month-old baby in arms could conceivably be a terrorist, does it make sense to search her and ignore people who are more likely to be terrorists?

Oh, you say, the terrorists could recruit a grandmother and her grandbaby, thus exploiting our search algorithms. If you're not careful, you end up like Vizzini trying to outwit Inigo Montoya over a cup of poison (in the Princess Bride). At some point, unless you want air traffic to grind to a halt, you have to decide the best way to find potential terrorists without searching everyone. (Maybe we could search everyone in the country beforehand, just to make sure). Is random searching the best way? Even if you have to ignore some information?

I don't know, but in most cases, I think using all the available information to make a decision is the best solution. It's a calculated risk -- or at least I hope it's calculated -- but the simple, unfortunate fact is that any screening method can be foiled, even if it involves screening everyone at the gate. Remember, passengers are not the only ones who board planes.

"Can you tell, just by looking at them, who has the stupid ideas?"

No. But profiling should not be so dumb and unsophisticated as just "looking" at someone. It should take into account all information available, both visually and via combined public and private databases. This would be the basis of effective profiling, and it would include 75-year-old grandmothers if they fit the profile.

It would also, I'm sure, select a large number of false positives among military-age-middle-eastern men.

Um, just a minor correction there Mr. Paris - Vizzini wasn't trying to outwit Inigo Montoya over the poison, he was trying to outwit "the man in black," AKA Westley.

You might like to check out this JREF thread I started.

The article hints at a more sophisticated form of profiling than what some of the commenters suggest (can we say strawman? well, maybe not).

By learning as much as we can about known terrorists background, their travel patterns, their actions in airports, their religion, their education, and anything else, we can come up with a better predictor of who is most likely to be a terrorist (or, at least, we can conclusively argue that such a predictor does nto exist, rather appealing to emotions or to the label fallacy).

For this reason, it does not seem to me a bad idea to search a 25 year old Saudi citizen instead of an American 75 year old woman when time and workforce constraints compel you to search only one of them.

And, do not forget, good people, that searching people in aiports is not the same as convicting them of a crime.

Therefore I say they should develop profiles and apply them, and modify them depending on their success, and not worry about the anger of people who are going to be angry anyway.

Arrgh! Right you are, Eric. Of course it was Westley. Montoya had been left behind at the cliff. How unutterably silly of me.

Even if we suppose that most of the people who are attempting to hijack or blow up passenger aircraft are male Arab Muslims in their 20s and 30s, it is still the case that the vast majority of people who fit that description trying to board a plane are not terrorists. Suspecting that someone might be a terrorist because he looks like a young male Arab is arbitrary and discriminatory and, almost all of the time, your suspicion will be wrong: a randomly selected young male Arab airline passenger is not very likely at all to be a terrorist planning to carry out an attack. Lots of young Arab men have flown on passenger flights and not tried to hijack them or blow them up, while a comparatively very small number have tried.

There are two kinds of security checks: the kind you do because you have reason to suspect that a particular person may pose a security threat, and the kind you do randomly in order to make it a little harder for people you don't suspect to get away with it. Random searches only work because they are random: a would-be attacker cannot count on avoiding screening simply because he or she does not "fit the profile." If you never check 90-year old grandmas because you think they can't be terrorists, you can bet that terrorists will try their very best to recruit people who can pass for 90-year old grandmothers.

For targeted screening, you really need a whole lot more than "young Arab male" in order to justify a reasonable suspicion that the person might be up to something.

Maybe we do want fewer random searches and more targeted searches, but racial and cultural profiling isn't much more than prejudice dressed up as profiling. Being a young Arab male is not sufficient justification for being targeted for extra scrutiny because most young Arab males aren't terrorists. In order for it to be a real targeted search, you need something more to go on: something that justifies a reasonable suspicion that this person might be planning something.

Someone might not mind being singled out and subjected to extra scrutiny on the basis of their race or religion, if it happened only once or twice. But imagine being an Arab male and knowing that, every time you try to fly, there is a good chance you will be pulled aside and subjected to extended screening, and there isn't anything you can do about it because you are being pulled aside on the grounds that you share your ethnicity and religion with a small number of other people who may be up to no good.

I'd like to amplify a little further on moonbiter's point about generalities: trying to prospectively profile terrorists who are attempting to attack Western facilities involves generalizing from an extremely limited sample: thankfully, there have been only a handful of successful attacks or serious attempts (e.g. the attempted shoe-bombing). But trying to draw any conclusions about the characteristics of future operatives from so few incidents is going to be only slightly more reliable than consulting a psychic.

Back when there was a flurry of interest in the small number of mass school shootings in the late nineties, some feminists complained that researchers were improperly refusing to categorize school shooting as a specifically male problem. But the researchers were correct; there simply weren't enough incidents to make that call (and in fact there was an incident in the late Seventies where the perpetrator was female; there's even a well-known song about it). All the law-enforcement authorities in fact concluded that it was impossible to come up with a profile for school shooters. It was possible to come up with stereotypes, but they had no predictive value (for example, only a minority of the shooters were loners).

The simple fact is that horrific but rare events like terrorist attacks and school shootings aren't particularly predictable, and pretending they are just so you can be seen doing something is just wishful thinking, wishful thinking with the potential to do more harm than good (particularly by creating a false sense of security).

I'm all for profiling. Yes, it is prejudiced. These hot heads will be furious forever. If they want this to stop THEY should be doing most of the anti-terror work. They should be fighting the people who tarnish their image instead of sitting back and bitching.

This is the cost of religion in a modern world. Most of the people on this planet are idiots and we just have to suck it up.

Profiling is bad tactics. It doesn't work. All it does is advertise your vulnerabilities to potential attackers. They're searching Muslims at the airports? Get terrorists that don't look Muslim. Actually, they're not even singling out Muslims, just Muslim-looking people. Given people's poor judgement on appearance and race, this is a recipe for disaster. Remember, culture and philosophy are invisible. Didn't anyone tell you not to judge a book by its cover? In Manahttan, police randomly screen people entering the subway with big bags or backpacks. So a successful bomber just has to shave, wear a suit and carry a bomb in an expensive briefcase. Bam, your profiling just became counterproductive! You might stop some stupid terrorists, like those 'chat-room terrorists' they just rounded up in England. But the smart terrorists, the ones who are real threats, will laugh at racial profiling, then use it to their advantage.

Smart people don't oppose profiling because it's 'politically correct', whatever that is. They oppose it because it doesn't work. Racism in any form will ALWAYS leave you at a disadvantage.

Sorry, I hope no one got the impression that I was accusing anyone of racism. No accusations intended.

I'm with Moonbiter, Will et al.

Can I point out, too, that if we're talking about checks on the basis of appearance then we really souldn't even pretend to mean 'Muslim': we should say 'brown-skinned people'. Muslim extremists come from West Africa, North Africa and the Middle-East, South-East Asia... a major mixed bag, ethnically. Then there are those who look like people of those ethnicities, such as the Rrom...

If we're talking about very sophisticated profiling (based on tracking travel destinations over time and various personal data) then that raises other problems (privacy, for example - whose damn data is that anway? Who should we entrust it to?). Possibly such vetting might help - but in fact, I suspect it would be too expensive, too unwieldy (too much damn data!), and too open to exploitation, as Mike, Moonbiter and so on have pointed out.

I think a more reasonable solution is better enforcement of basic security standards: who hasn't experienced a non-functional security gate, inattentive bag inspection, failure to carry out a visual ID check or signature verification, or some other such lapse?

My theory is that if we start to tone down security because of a person's appearance, age, sex, etc. then this opens an opportunity. All the terrorists need is someone who doesn't fit the high scrutiny profile, and they have an advantage.

However, statistically, terrorism kills less people each year than lightning. Shouldn't we be worrying less about these insignificant Muslim troublemakers and a little more about spooky, scary dark thunderclouds?

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