TSA Statement Suggests It Will Use Terrorist Profiling

The Transportation Safety Administration [TSA] has suggested it will begin focusing on individual passenger characteristics – sometimes called terrorism profiling – to increase the effectiveness of its screening in deterring terrorist incidents
July 14, 2011 - PRLog -- The Transportation Safety Administration [TSA], in a little-reported statement issued late and unexpectedly after yesterday's stormy congressional hearing, suggested it will follow Israel's lead and begin focusing on individual passenger characteristics – sometimes called terrorism profiling – to increase the effectiveness of its screening in deterring terrorist incidents, and to reduce needless secondary searches of young children, the elderly, and others who present a very low risk.

   "We are working on common sense changes that will strengthen security by looking more at the people who fly, and better identify and focus on the highest risk threat," the TSA said in an email to Tom Costello of NBC TV Evening News.  Costello was impressed, concluding: "Things may soon change." http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3032619/ns/nightly_news/#4374...

   The TSA's statement came after the former security director of Israel's Ben Gurion airport, Rafi Ron, said that the TSA must "shift focus to dangerous people from dangerous weapons," and "stop treating babies and the elderly as extreme security threats."  He counseled that "first you have to identify the level of risk; then you can adjust the level of search."

   Identifying the level of potential risk each individual passengers presents, rather than treating everyone equally so that toddlers and elderly Asian women receive the same scrutiny as young Arab males, has been called terrorist profiling.  It has been a controversial and hot button issue because it is frequently confused with racial profiling, and because people have been told that it is both ineffective and unconstitutional.

   But public interest law professor John Banzhaf claims that terrorist profiling is much more effective than the current system, and he has an elaborate published mathematical study to back him up.  He also says that it's not unconstitutional, and he seems to have the U.S. Supreme Court and the Justice Department on his side.

   "Racial profiling," he says, involves selecting individuals for searches – usually in the context of preventing ordinary crime – solely on the basis of one characteristic such as race or ethnicity.  This is unconstitutional, and probably not very effective, says the Justice Department.

   "Terrorist profiling," on the other hand, involves assessing the terrorism risk posed by each individual by using a variety of characteristics which can include ethnicity, age, and gender, among others.  Provided it is used to stop terrorists, and no single factor is the sole criteria, it is constitutional, Prof. Banzhaf says.

   A detailed mathematical study says that the current TSA screening policy of treating everyone the same – providing the same screening for young Arabic or Muslim males as for toddlers and elderly Asian women – is not an efficient way of stopping potential terrorists, and that the effectiveness of the procedure could be improved substantially by giving added scrutiny to passengers based upon factors like age, gender, and ethnicity. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2009/02/02/0813202106. ...

   Under such a system, TSA screeners would use ethnicity, age, and sex as factors in deciding whom to select for enhanced screening, especially of the kind which might detect implanted bombs.

   These would be used in combination with other factors, and would only increase the chances of an additional search, not mandate one in each case where one factor was present.  On the other hand, toddlers, elderly women, etc. would be less likely to be selected for enhanced screening, although a few would still be subjected to it at random.

   This could substantially reduce the intrusiveness of screening for many passengers, especially those in very low-risk categories like toddlers, older women, pilots and flight attendants, etc., says Banzhaf, whose work in creating the mathematical tool known as the Banzhaf Index has led to many different awards.  Intrusive searches of very low-risk passengers, such as toddlers and elderly diaper-wearing women, and groping by TSA inspectors, has aroused great public concern.

   Banzhaf, who is a professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University, notes that the Supreme Court and the Justice Department have both said that it is constitutional for government employees to consider factors like age, gender, religion, or ethnicity, provided that it serves a "compelling state interest" like preventing terrorist bombings, and is considered not is isolation but rather along with other factors (e.g., nervousness, suspicious behavior, etc.).

   "Terrorist profiling is not the same as racial profiling.  The latter is illegal because it is based upon only one factor, whereas using religion, age, and gender along with other factors in selecting passengers for added security screening is not only constitutional but logical according to a precise mathematical analysis." That's why, for example, colleges can use race as a factor in selecting applicants, provided that it is combined also with other factors.

   This mathematical study, explains Banzhaf, has shown that using factors like age, gender, and ethnicity in airport and other screenings to reduce terrorism can substantially increase their effectiveness, but only if the "Goldilocks" approach of  "not too much and not too little" is used.

   More specifically, "square-root biased sampling" procedures should single out those meeting a terrorist profile for extra scrutiny, but only in proportion to the square root of their propensity to be terrorists.

   In any event, it does not appear that the TSA is now openly using any terrorist profiling to provide added scrutiny to those who potentially pose a higher risk on domestic flights, which is where much of the recent controversy over intrusive searches seems to be taking place. This is what may well change, suggests Banzhaf.

   Banzhaf argues that terrorist profiling is logical but not stigmatizing.  He notes that, if he as a white man were visiting South Africa at a time when a white supremacist group was actively trying to place suicide bombers on airplanes, he would hope that white males like himself would be singled out for enhanced screening, and that blacks would be less likely to be subjected.  "I would feel much safer and not stigmatized, and get on my airplane more quickly," he says.

   Moreover, since airport screeners would not have to spend as much time screening black passengers – who are extremely unlikely to sacrifice themselves for the cause of white supremacy –  the time it would take for him to go through the security checkpoints would also be much smaller, he argues.  

  Prof. Banzhaf was made a Fellow of the World Technology Network, and was awarded an honorary doctorate by Thomas Jefferson University, for his work combining math and law.  His contributions to Game Theory were recognized by Newsweek magazine in "The Games Scholars Play" [9/6/82], in Paulos, A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper (The New York Time Book Review concluded "Mr. Paulos's little essay explaining the Banzhaf Index . . is itself worth the price of the book."), and in many other books, newspaper editorials, and Congressional hearings.

Professor of Public Interest Law
George Washington University Law School,
FAMRI Dr. William Cahan Distinguished Professor,
Fellow, World Technology Network,
Founder, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH)
Creator, Banzhaf Index of Voting Power
2000 H Street, NW, Suite S402
Washington, DC 20052, USA
(202) 994-7229 // (703) 527-8418

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John F. Banzhaf III is a Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University Law School [http://banzhaf.net/] where he is best known for his work regarding smoking [http://ash.org/], obesity [http://banzhaf.net/obesitylinks.html], etc.
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