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Profiling Passengers Pros & Cons


Who's Watching Out for Airline Security?

Who's Watching Out for Airline Security?

Jorge Diaz (creative commons license)
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Also see:New Homeland Security Technologies | Top 5 Travel Safety Sources

The threat of terrorism has made airport security measures a hot topic since 9/11. While passengers face ever-longer lists of prohibited items, security experts increasingly argue that it is passengers themselves, not the contents of their bags, that need to be scrutinized. Those in the air travel business may agree, as the time and inconvenience of getting through airport security grows, making air travel unattractive to customers. If passenger profiling works, it would be an effective way to prevent terrorists from attacking and save time and money for everyone else.

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Profiling Provokes Concerns over Civil Liberties
Civil Rights experts argue that passenger profiling violates passengers' civil rights. Any profiling system requires creating stereotypes of their objects based on existing information. So, because the 9/11 attackers were all Arab Muslims, Arab Muslims are more likely to be profiled than others, which violates basic ideas about Americans' equality. The chance that inaccuracies and prejudice will make their way into the system is good.

Profiling's Effectiveness Remains to Be Proven
Profiling may not actually be effective. Profiling, when it replaces baggage screening, can have a negative effect on overall security, according to the American Civil Liberties Union: In 1972, the last year the United States used profiles to determine whose carry-on luggage would be X-rayed to stop hijacking, there were 28 hijackings of U.S. aircraft anyway. Hijacking dropped off when profiling was abandoned and every passenger's carry-on luggage was X-rayed.

Despite these concerns, the positive signs that profiling can work may make it a valuable tool, among others, to increase airport security.

Latest Developments

The August, 2006 arrest of 24 men planning to blow up aircraft leaving Heathrow's airport using a combination of innocuous liquids re-opened the debate about effective airport screening. Later in the week, the British government announced that it is considering a passenger profiling system that would go beyond simply identifying passengers with specific racial or ethnic backgrounds.

Amid extra security measures, delays and skyrocketing threat levels for passengers, analysts concluded that current hand-baggage screening technology is probably not sufficient to identify all potential bomb components, especially homemade ones. "The trouble with airport security measures is that a lot of machines do not spot a lot of explosives. It is still a case of dogs and people taking their clothes off," said Andy Oppenheimer, a Jane's Nuclear Biological Chemical Defense editor.


Airline passenger profiling got its official start in 1994, when Northwest Airlines began developing a computer-assisted passenger pre-screening system (CAPPS). Following suspicions that the July 1996 crash of a TWA flight might have involved a bomb, the government began making recommendations that profiling through CAPPS be made routine.

Civil Liberties organizations raised concerns that such programs are discriminatory. Their use remained widespread, however, and both a 1997 Justice Department report and 1998 Senate Subcommittee aviation hearings concluded that CAPPS was being implemented in a fair way. They recommended Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) oversight to make sure that profiling remained fair.

Concerns about terrorism following 9/11 and advances in electronic information collection and gathering have raised the stakes. Following September 11, the department of Homeland Security developed two programs, CAPPS II and the Secure Flight Program, both of which have been controversial on civil liberties grounds. CAPPS II, which required passengers to provide personal information when they made reservations, has been abandoned. Secure Flight requires airlines to share the names of passengers with the government for comparison with a centralized list of terrorist names.

The government is also experimenting with low-tech forms of passenger profiling based on behavior pattern recognition. Security officers use the technique to flag passengers who seem to be acting suspiciously. While it is behavior, not race or ethnicity, that's being tagged, there are concerns that behavior pattern recognition can turn easily into racial profiling, or subject innocent people to illegal searches without a good pretext. The Screening Passengers by Observation Technique program, known as SPOT, has been in use in major city airports since 2004.

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