Entries Tagged "profiling"

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DHS Warns of Female Suicide Bombers

First paragraph:

Terrorists increasingly favor using women as suicide bombers to thwart security and draw attention to their causes, a new FBI-Department of Homeland Security assessment concludes.

Photo caption:

Female suicide bombers can use devices to make them appear pregnant, a security assessment says.

Second paragraph:

The assessment said the agencies “have no specific, credible intelligence indicating that terrorist organizations intend to utilize female suicide bombers against targets in the homeland.”

Does the DHS think we’re idiots or something?

Posted on February 13, 2008 at 12:35 PMView Comments

Al Qaeda Recruiting Non-Muslims

This is an awful fear-mongering story about non-Muslims being recruited in the UK:

As many as 1,500 white Britons are believed to have converted to Islam for the purpose of funding, planning and carrying out surprise terror attacks inside the UK, according to one MI5 source.

This quote is particularly telling:

One British security source last night told Scotland on Sunday: “There could be anything up to 1,500 converts to the fundamentalist cause across Britain. They pose a real potential danger to our domestic security because, obviously, these people blend in and do not raise any flags.

Because the only “flag” that can possibly identify terrorists is that they’re Muslim, right?

Posted on January 24, 2008 at 8:55 AMView Comments

Airport Behavioral Profiling Leads to an Arrest

I’m generally a fan of behavioral profiling. While it sounds weird and creepy and has been likened to Orwell’s “facecrime”, there’s no doubt that — when done properly — it works at catching common criminals:

On Dec. 4, Juan Carlos Berriel-Castillo, 22, and Bernardo Carmona-Olivares, 20, were planning to fly to Maui but were instead arrested on suspicion of forgery.

They tried to pass through a Terminal 4 security checkpoint with suspicious documents, Phoenix police spokeswoman Stacie Derge said.

The pair had false permanent-resident identification, and authorities also found false Social Security cards, officials say.

While the pair were questioned about the papers, a TSA official who had received behavior-recognition training observed a third man in the area who appeared to be connected to Berriel-Castillo and Carmona-Olivares, Melendez said.

As a result, police later arrested Samuel Gonzalez, 32. A background check revealed that Gonzalez was wanted on two misdemeanor warrants.

TSA press release here.

Security is a trade-off. The question is whether the expense of the Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program, given the minor criminals it catches, is worth it. (Remember, it’s supposed to catch terrorists, not people with outstanding misdemeanor warrants.) Especially with the 99% false alarm rate:

Since January 2006, behavior-detection officers have referred about 70,000 people for secondary screening, Maccario said. Of those, about 600 to 700 were arrested on a variety of charges, including possession of drugs, weapons violations and outstanding warrants.

And the other social costs, including loss of liberty, restriction of fundamental freedoms, and the creation of a thoughtcrime. Is this the sort of power we want to give a police force in a constitutional democracy, or does it feel more like a police-state sort of thing?

This “Bizarro” cartoon sums it up nicely.

Posted on January 3, 2008 at 12:49 PMView Comments

The Sham of Criminal Profiling

Malcolm Gladwell makes a convincing case that criminal profiling is nothing more than a “cold reading” magic trick.

A few years ago, Alison went back to the case of the teacher who was murdered on the roof of her building in the Bronx. He wanted to know why, if the F.B.I.’s approach to criminal profiling was based on such simplistic psychology, it continues to have such a sterling reputation. The answer, he suspected, lay in the way the profiles were written, and, sure enough, when he broke down the rooftop-killer analysis, sentence by sentence, he found that it was so full of unverifiable and contradictory and ambiguous language that it could support virtually any interpretation.

Astrologers and psychics have known these tricks for years. The magician Ian Rowland, in his classic “The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading,” itemizes them one by one, in what could easily serve as a manual for the beginner profiler. First is the Rainbow Ruse — the “statement which credits the client with both a personality trait and its opposite.” (“I would say that on the whole you can be rather a quiet, self effacing type, but when the circumstances are right, you can be quite the life and soul of the party if the mood strikes you.”) The Jacques Statement, named for the character in “As You Like It” who gives the Seven Ages of Man speech, tailors the prediction to the age of the subject. To someone in his late thirties or early forties, for example, the psychic says, “If you are honest about it, you often get to wondering what happened to all those dreams you had when you were younger.” There is the Barnum Statement, the assertion so general that anyone would agree, and the Fuzzy Fact, the seemingly factual statement couched in a way that “leaves plenty of scope to be developed into something more specific.” (“I can see a connection with Europe, possibly Britain, or it could be the warmer, Mediterranean part?”) And that’s only the start: there is the Greener Grass technique, the Diverted Question, the Russian Doll, Sugar Lumps, not to mention Forking and the Good Chance Guess — all of which, when put together in skillful combination, can convince even the most skeptical observer that he or she is in the presence of real insight.


They had been at it for almost six hours. The best minds in the F.B.I. had given the Wichita detectives a blueprint for their investigation. Look for an American male with a possible connection to the military. His I.Q. will be above 105. He will like to masturbate, and will be aloof and selfish in bed. He will drive a decent car. He will be a “now” person. He won’t be comfortable with women. But he may have women friends. He will be a lone wolf. But he will be able to function in social settings. He won’t be unmemorable. But he will be unknowable. He will be either never married, divorced, or married, and if he was or is married his wife will be younger or older. He may or may not live in a rental, and might be lower class, upper lower class, lower middle class or middle class. And he will be crazy like a fox, as opposed to being mental. If you’re keeping score, that’s a Jacques Statement, two Barnum Statements, four Rainbow Ruses, a Good Chance Guess, two predictions that aren’t really predictions because they could never be verified — and nothing even close to the salient fact that BTK was a pillar of his community, the president of his church and the married father of two.

Posted on November 14, 2007 at 6:47 AMView Comments

More Behavioral Profiling

I’ve seen several articles based on this press release:

Computer and behavioral scientists at the University at Buffalo are developing automated systems that track faces, voices, bodies and other biometrics against scientifically tested behavioral indicators to provide a numerical score of the likelihood that an individual may be about to commit a terrorist act.

I am generally in favor of funding all sorts of research, no matter how outlandish — you never know when you’ll discover something really good — and I am generally in favor of this sort of behavioral assessment profiling.

But I wish reporters would approach these topics with something resembling skepticism. The false-positive rate matters far more than the false-negative rate, and I doubt something like this will be ready for fielding any time soon.

EDITED TO ADD (10/13): Another comment.

Posted on October 15, 2007 at 6:16 AMView Comments

GAO Report on International Passenger Prescreening

From the U.S. GAO: “Aviation Security: Efforts to Strengthen International Prescreening are Under Way, but Planning and Implementations Remain,” May 2007.

What GAO Found

Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agency responsible for international passenger prescreening, has planned or is taking several actions designed to strengthen the aviation passenger prescreening process. One such effort involves CBP stationing U.S. personnel overseas to evaluate the authenticity of the travel documents of certain high-risk passengers prior to boarding U.S.-bound flights. Under this pilot program, called the Immigration Advisory Program (IAP), CBP officers personally interview some passengers deemed to be high-risk and evaluate the authenticity and completeness of these passengers’ travel documents. IAP officers also provide technical assistance and training to air carrier staff on the identification of improperly documented passengers destined for the United States. The IAP has been tested at several foreign airports and CBP is negotiating with other countries to expand it elsewhere and to make certain IAP sites permanent. Successful implementation of the IAP rests, in part, on CBP clearly defining the goals and objectives of the program through the development of a strategic plan.

A second aviation passenger prescreening effort designed to strengthen the passenger prescreening process is intended to align international passenger prescreening with a similar program (currently under development) for prescreening passengers on domestic flights. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) — a separate agency within DHS — is developing a domestic passenger prescreening program called Secure Flight. If CBP’s international prescreening program and TSA’s Secure Flight program are not effectively aligned once Secure Flight becomes operational, this could result in separate implementation requirements for air carriers and increased costs for both air carriers and the government. CBP and TSA officials stated that they are taking steps to coordinate their prescreening efforts, but they have not yet made all key policy decisions.

In addition to these efforts to strengthen certain international aviation passenger prescreening procedures, one other issue requires consideration in the context of these efforts. This issue involves DHS providing the traveling public with assurances of privacy protection as required by federal privacy law. Federal privacy law requires agencies to inform the public about how the government uses their personal information. Although CBP officials have stated that they have taken and are continuing to take steps to comply with these requirements, the current prescreening process allows passenger information to be used in multiple prescreening procedures and transferred among various CBP prescreening systems in ways that are not fully explained in CBP’s privacy disclosures. If CBP does not issue all appropriate disclosures, the traveling public will not be fully aware of how their personal information is being used during the passenger prescreening process.

Posted on May 23, 2007 at 7:18 AMView Comments

Recognizing "Hinky" vs. Citizen Informants

On the subject of people noticing and reporting suspicious actions, I have been espousing two views that some find contradictory. One, we are all safer if police, guards, security screeners, and the like ignore traditional profiling and instead pay attention to people acting hinky: not right. And two, if we encourage people to contact the authorities every time they see something suspicious, we’re going to waste our time chasing false alarms: foreigners whose customs are different, people who are disliked by someone, and so on.

The key difference is expertise. People trained to be alert for something hinky will do much better than any profiler, but people who have no idea what to look for will do no better than random.

Here’s a story that illustrates this: Last week, a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology was arrested with two illegal assault weapons and 320 rounds of ammunition in his dorm room and car:

The discovery of the weapons was made only by chance. A conference center worker who served in the military was walking past Hackenburg’s dorm room. The door was shut, but the worker heard the all-too-familiar racking sound of a weapon, said the center’s director Bill Gunther.

Notice how expertise made the difference. The “conference center worker” had the right knowledge to recognize the sound and to understand that it was out of place in the environment he heard it. He wasn’t primed to be on the lookout for suspicious people and things; his trained awareness kicked in automatically. He recognized hinky, and he acted on that recognition. A random person simply can’t do that; he won’t recognize hinky when he sees it. He’ll report imams for praying, a neighbor he’s pissed at, or people at random. He’ll see an English professor recycling paper, and report a Middle-Eastern-looking man leaving a box on sidewalk.

We all have some experience with this. Each of us has some expertise in some topic, and will occasionally recognize that something is wrong even though we can’t fully explain what or why. An architect might feel that way about a particular structure; an artist might feel that way about a particular painting. I might look at a cryptographic system and intuitively know something is wrong with it, well before I figure out exactly what. Those are all examples of a subliminal recognition that something is hinky — in our particular domain of expertise.

Good security people have the knowledge, skill, and experience to do that in security situations. It’s the difference between a good security person and an amateur.

This is why behavioral assessment profiling is a good idea, while the Terrorist Information and Prevention System (TIPS) isn’t. This is why training truckers to look out for suspicious things on the highways is a good idea, while a vague list of things to watch out for isn’t. It’s why this Israeli driver recognized a passenger as a suicide bomber, while an American driver probably wouldn’t.

This kind of thing isn’t easy to train. (Much has been written about it, though; Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink discusses this in detail.) You can’t learn it from watching a seven-minute video. But the more we focus on this — the more we stop wasting our airport security resources on screeners who confiscate rocks and snow globes, and instead focus them on well-trained screeners walking through the airport looking for hinky — the more secure we will be.

EDITED TO ADD (4/26): Jim Harper makes an important clarification.

Posted on April 26, 2007 at 5:43 AMView Comments

English Professor Reported for Recycling Paper While Looking Middle Eastern

This is just awful:

Because of my recycling, the bomb squad came, then the state police. Because of my recycling, buildings were evacuated, classes were canceled, the campus was closed. No. Not because of my recycling. Because of my dark body. No. Not even that. Because of his fear. Because of the way he saw me. Because of the culture of fear, mistrust, hatred and suspicion that is carefully cultivated in the media, by the government, by people who claim to want to keep us “safe.”


What does that community mean to me, a person who has to walk by the ROTC offices every day on my way to my own office just down the hall — who was watched, noted and reported, all in a day’s work? Today, we gave in willingly and wholeheartedly to a culture of fear and blaming and profiling. It is deemed perfectly appropriate behavior to spy on one another and police one another and report on one another. Such behaviors exist most strongly in closed, undemocratic and fascist societies.

Posted on April 25, 2007 at 3:02 PMView Comments

How Australian Authorities Respond to Potential Terrorists

Watch the video of how the Australian authorities react when someone — dressed either as an American or Arab tourist — films the Sydney Harbor Bridge and a nuclear reactor.

The synopsis: The Arab is intercepted within three minutes both times, while the U.S. tourist is given instructions on how to get inside the nuclear facility.

Moral for terrorists: dress like an American.

By the way, Lucas Heights is a research reactor. It produces medical isotopes and performs research, and doesn’t produce power.

Posted on April 24, 2007 at 7:12 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.