What Prosser should have addressed – airport profiling

“One aspect of Prosser’s rambling polemic touched on something of genuine importance.” Airport profiling.

Richard Prosser caused an uproar when he bashed all Muslims with his keyboard in an Investigate column. When this surfaced in blogs and mainstream media this caused a furore. Prosser began as unrepentant, but quickly changed his stance, making an “unreserved” apology – of sorts. See Prosser: ‘I’m apologising unreservedly’ - see also Retreat from Wogistan.

Prosser also suggested what his approach should have been.

Mr Prosser said rather than calling for young Muslim men to be banned from travelling by air, he should have called for an investigation into the merits of “target profiling”.

A column in D Scene by Associate Law Professor Colin Gavaghan has picked up on this.

Should we use security profiling at airports?

One aspect of Prosser’s rambling polemic touched on something of genuine importance. The controversial suggestion terror suspects should be identified based on their appearance is being taken seriously in some quarters.

US philospher and neuroscientest Sam Harris has argued it makes sense to target airport security efforts at youngish Muslim males, as they are the group almost exclusively resonsible for suicide agttacks on aircraft.

Since there us no test that can be administered to detect “Muslimness”, profiling will inevitably boil down to singling out people who “look Muslim”. Read: of middle eastern or south Asian appearance.

Leaving aside the social, ethical and legal problems of using ethnicity as a proxy for dangerousness, it doesn’t take a criminal mastermind of Moriarty proportions to see how this system might be gamed.

As security expert Bruce Schneier has warned, it wouldn’t be smart to rely on a system that can be fooled by a bottle of hair dye.

Some more recent developments eschew racial profiling, using putatively more subtle and accurate markers.

The Facial Actions Coding System works by monitoring all the little muscle movements. Other sorts of behavioural profiling focus on how someone walks and how much they are sweating.

All of which is intended to help security people see into people’s minds. Are they filled with righteous rage, or just slightly irritated by the delayed flight?

How far should we go towards a predictive model of law enforcement?

If it works, the safety benefits could be massive – not only in preventing terrorist atrocities, but maybe also spree killings like Sandy Hook.

It’s one thing, though, if the test just results in someone being subject to a minor inconvenience, like a brief search.

It’s quite another if “false positives” result in completely innocent people being shot dead by jumpy police.

In the middle we have a whole range of possibile inconveniences and restrictions to which people could be subject, based on predictions of what they might do.

For those who don’t resemble the profile of a “typical” terrorist, all this may seem like a price worth paying for greater security. But it won’t be them paying the priced.

Of course this column has attracted minimal attention after the raising of the issue by Prosser. A reasoned and reasonable approach doesn’t make the news, even though it addresses the important issues.

 

 

 

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