Entries Tagged "profiling"

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Profiling

There is a great discussion about profiling going on in the comments to the previous post. To help, here is what I wrote on the subject in Beyond Fear (pp. 133-7):

Good security has people in charge. People are resilient. People can improvise. People can be creative. People can develop on-the-spot solutions. People can detect attackers who cheat, and can attempt to maintain security despite the cheating. People can detect passive failures and attempt to recover. People are the strongest point in a security process. When a security system succeeds in the face of a new or coordinated or devastating attack, it’s usually due to the efforts of people.

On 14 December 1999, Ahmed Ressam tried to enter the U.S. by ferryboat from Victoria Island, British Columbia. In the trunk of his car, he had a suitcase bomb. His plan was to drive to Los Angeles International Airport, put his suitcase on a luggage cart in the terminal, set the timer, and then leave. The plan would have worked had someone not been vigilant.

Ressam had to clear customs before boarding the ferry. He had fake ID, in the name of Benni Antoine Noris, and the computer cleared him based on this ID. He was allowed to go through after a routine check of his car’s trunk, even though he was wanted by the Canadian police. On the other side of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, at Port Angeles, Washington, Ressam was approached by U.S. customs agent Diana Dean, who asked some routine questions and then decided that he looked suspicious. He was fidgeting, sweaty, and jittery. He avoided eye contact. In Dean’s own words, he was acting “hinky.” More questioning — there was no one else crossing the border, so two other agents got involved — and more hinky behavior. Ressam’s car was eventually searched, and he was finally discovered and captured. It wasn’t any one thing that tipped Dean off; it was everything encompassed in the slang term “hinky.” But the system worked. The reason there wasn’t a bombing at LAX around Christmas in 1999 was because a knowledgeable person was in charge of security and paying attention.

There’s a dirty word for what Dean did that chilly afternoon in December, and it’s profiling. Everyone does it all the time. When you see someone lurking in a dark alley and change your direction to avoid him, you’re profiling. When a storeowner sees someone furtively looking around as she fiddles inside her jacket, that storeowner is profiling. People profile based on someone’s dress, mannerisms, tone of voice … and yes, also on their race and ethnicity. When you see someone running toward you on the street with a bloody ax, you don’t know for sure that he’s a crazed ax murderer. Perhaps he’s a butcher who’s actually running after the person next to you to give her the change she forgot. But you’re going to make a guess one way or another. That guess is an example of profiling.

To profile is to generalize. It’s taking characteristics of a population and applying them to an individual. People naturally have an intuition about other people based on different characteristics. Sometimes that intuition is right and sometimes it’s wrong, but it’s still a person’s first reaction. How good this intuition is as a countermeasure depends on two things: how accurate the intuition is and how effective it is when it becomes institutionalized or when the profile characteristics become commonplace.

One of the ways profiling becomes institutionalized is through computerization. Instead of Diana Dean looking someone over, a computer looks the profile over and gives it some sort of rating. Generally profiles with high ratings are further evaluated by people, although sometimes countermeasures kick in based on the computerized profile alone. This is, of course, more brittle. The computer can profile based only on simple, easy-to-assign characteristics: age, race, credit history, job history, et cetera. Computers don’t get hinky feelings. Computers also can’t adapt the way people can.

Profiling works better if the characteristics profiled are accurate. If erratic driving is a good indication that the driver is intoxicated, then that’s a good characteristic for a police officer to use to determine who he’s going to pull over. If furtively looking around a store or wearing a coat on a hot day is a good indication that the person is a shoplifter, then those are good characteristics for a store owner to pay attention to. But if wearing baggy trousers isn’t a good indication that the person is a shoplifter, then the store owner is going to spend a lot of time paying undue attention to honest people with lousy fashion sense.

In common parlance, the term “profiling” doesn’t refer to these characteristics. It refers to profiling based on characteristics like race and ethnicity, and institutionalized profiling based on those characteristics alone. During World War II, the U.S. rounded up over 100,000 people of Japanese origin who lived on the West Coast and locked them in camps (prisons, really). That was an example of profiling. Israeli border guards spend a lot more time scrutinizing Arab men than Israeli women; that’s another example of profiling. In many U.S. communities, police have been known to stop and question people of color driving around in wealthy white neighborhoods (commonly referred to as “DWB” — Driving While Black). In all of these cases you might possibly be able to argue some security benefit, but the trade-offs are enormous: Honest people who fit the profile can get annoyed, or harassed, or arrested, when they’re assumed to be attackers.

For democratic governments, this is a major problem. It’s just wrong to segregate people into “more likely to be attackers” and “less likely to be attackers” based on race or ethnicity. It’s wrong for the police to pull a car over just because its black occupants are driving in a rich white neighborhood. It’s discrimination.

But people make bad security trade-offs when they’re scared, which is why we saw Japanese internment camps during World War II, and why there is so much discrimination against Arabs in the U.S. going on today. That doesn’t make it right, and it doesn’t make it effective security. Writing about the Japanese internment, for example, a 1983 commission reported that the causes of the incarceration were rooted in “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” But just because something is wrong doesn’t mean that people won’t continue to do it.

Ethics aside, institutionalized profiling fails because real attackers are so rare: Active failures will be much more common than passive failures. The great majority of people who fit the profile will be innocent. At the same time, some real attackers are going to deliberately try to sneak past the profile. During World War II, a Japanese American saboteur could try to evade imprisonment by pretending to be Chinese. Similarly, an Arab terrorist could dye his hair blond, practice an American accent, and so on.

Profiling can also blind you to threats outside the profile. If U.S. border guards stop and search everyone who’s young, Arab, and male, they’re not going to have the time to stop and search all sorts of other people, no matter how hinky they might be acting. On the other hand, if the attackers are of a single race or ethnicity, profiling is more likely to work (although the ethics are still questionable). It makes real security sense for El Al to spend more time investigating young Arab males than it does for them to investigate Israeli families. In Vietnam, American soldiers never knew which local civilians were really combatants; sometimes killing all of them was the security solution they chose.

If a lot of this discussion is abhorrent, as it probably should be, it’s the trade-offs in your head talking. It’s perfectly reasonable to decide not to implement a countermeasure not because it doesn’t work, but because the trade-offs are too great. Locking up every Arab-looking person will reduce the potential for Muslim terrorism, but no reasonable person would suggest it. (It’s an example of “winning the battle but losing the war.”) In the U.S., there are laws that prohibit police profiling by characteristics like ethnicity, because we believe that such security measures are wrong (and not simply because we believe them to be ineffective).

Still, no matter how much a government makes it illegal, profiling does occur. It occurs at an individual level, at the level of Diana Dean deciding which cars to wave through and which ones to investigate further. She profiled Ressam based on his mannerisms and his answers to her questions. He was Algerian, and she certainly noticed that. However, this was before 9/11, and the reports of the incident clearly indicate that she thought he was a drug smuggler; ethnicity probably wasn’t a key profiling factor in this case. In fact, this is one of the most interesting aspects of the story. That intuitive sense that something was amiss worked beautifully, even though everybody made a wrong assumption about what was wrong. Human intuition detected a completely unexpected kind of attack. Humans will beat computers at hinkiness-detection for many decades to come.

And done correctly, this intuition-based sort of profiling can be an excellent security countermeasure. Dean needed to have the training and the experience to profile accurately and properly, without stepping over the line and profiling illegally. The trick here is to make sure perceptions of risk match the actual risks. If those responsible for security profile based on superstition and wrong-headed intuition, or by blindly following a computerized profiling system, profiling won’t work at all. And even worse, it actually can reduce security by blinding people to the real threats. Institutionalized profiling can ossify a mind, and a person’s mind is the most important security countermeasure we have.

A couple of other points (not from the book):

  • Whenever you design a security system with two ways through — an easy way and a hard way — you invite the attacker to take the easy way. Profile for young Arab males, and you’ll get terrorists that are old non-Arab females. This paper looks at the security effectiveness of profiling versus random searching.
  • If we are going to increase security against terrorism, the young Arab males living in our country are precisely the people we want on our side. Discriminating against them in the name of security is not going to make them more likely to help.
  • Despite what many people think, terrorism is not confined to young Arab males. Shoe-bomber Richard Reid was British. Germaine Lindsay, one of the 7/7 London bombers, was Afro-Caribbean. Here are some more examples:

    In 1986, a 32-year-old Irish woman, pregnant at the time, was about to board an El Al flight from London to Tel Aviv when El Al security agents discovered an explosive device hidden in the false bottom of her bag. The woman’s boyfriend — the father of her unborn child — had hidden the bomb.

    In 1987, a 70-year-old man and a 25-year-old woman — neither of whom were Middle Eastern — posed as father and daughter and brought a bomb aboard a Korean Air flight from Baghdad to Thailand. En route to Bangkok, the bomb exploded, killing all on board.

    In 1999, men dressed as businessmen (and one dressed as a Catholic priest) turned out to be terrorist hijackers, who forced an Avianca flight to divert to an airstrip in Colombia, where some passengers were held as hostages for more than a year-and-half.

    The 2002 Bali terrorists were Indonesian. The Chechnyan terrorists who downed the Russian planes were women. Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber were Americans. The Basque terrorists are Basque, and Irish terrorists are Irish. Tha Tamil Tigers are Sri Lankan.

    And many Muslims are not Arabs. Even worse, almost everyone who is Arab is not a terrorist — many people who look Arab are not even Muslims. So not only are there an large number of false negatives — terrorists who don’t meet the profile — but there an enormous number of false positives: innocents that do meet the profile.

Posted on July 22, 2005 at 3:12 PMView Comments

Searching Bags in Subways

The New York City police will begin randomly searching people’s bags on subways, buses, commuter trains, and ferries.

“The police can and should be aggressively investigating anyone they suspect is trying to bring explosives into the subway,” said Christopher Dunn, associate legal director at the New York Civil Liberties Union. “However, random police searches of people without any suspicion of wrongdoing are contrary to our most basic constitutional values. This is a very troubling announcement.”

If the choice is between random searching and profiling, then random searching is a more effective security countermeasure. But Dunn is correct above when he says that there are some enormous trade-offs in liberty. And I don’t think we’re getting very much security in return.

Especially considering this:

[Police Commissioner Raymond] Kelly stressed that officers posted at subway entrances would not engage in racial profiling, and that passengers are free to “turn around and leave.”

“Okay guys; here are your explosives. If one of you gets singled out for a search, just turn around and leave. And then go back in via another entrance, or take a taxi to the next subway stop.”

And I don’t think they’ll be truly random, either. I think the police doing the searching will profile, because that’s what happens.

It’s another “movie plot threat.” It’s another “public relations security system.” It’s a waste of money, it substantially reduces our liberties, and it won’t make us any safer.

Final note: I often get comments along the lines of “Stop criticizing stuff; tell us what we should do.” My answer is always the same. Counterterrorism is most effective when it doesn’t make arbitrary assumptions about the terrorists’ plans. Stop searching bags on the subways, and spend the money on 1) intelligence and investigation — stopping the terrorists regardless of what their plans are, and 2) emergency response — lessening the impact of a terrorist attack, regardless of what the plans are. Countermeasures that defend against particular targets, or assume particular tactics, or cause the terrorists to make insignificant modifications in their plans, or that surveil the entire population looking for the few terrorists, are largely not worth it.

EDITED TO ADD: A Citizen’s Guide to Refusing New York Subway Searches.

Posted on July 22, 2005 at 6:27 AMView Comments

Surveillance Cameras in U.S. Cities

From EPIC:

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has requested more than $2 billion to finance grants to state and local governments for homeland security needs. Some of this money is being used by state and local governments to create networks of surveillance cameras to watch over the public in the streets, shopping centers, at airports and more. However, studies have found that such surveillance systems have little effect on crime, and that it is more effective to place more officers on the streets and improve lighting in high-crime areas. There are significant concerns about citizens’ privacy rights and misuse or abuse of the system. A professor at the University of Nevada at Reno has alleged that the university used a homeland security camera system to surreptitiously watch him after he filed a complaint alleging that the university abused its research animals. Also, British studies have found there is a significant danger of racial discrimination and stereotyping by those monitoring the cameras.

Posted on May 16, 2005 at 9:00 AMView Comments

The Emergence of a Global Infrastructure for Mass Registration and Surveillance

The International Campaign Against Mass Surveillance has issued a report (dated April 2005): “The Emergence of a Global Infrastructure for Mass Registration and Surveillance.” It’s a chilling assessment of the current international trends towards global surveillance. Most of it you will have seen before, although it’s good to have everything in one place. I am particularly pleased that the report explicitly states that these measures do not make us any safer, but only create the illusion of security.

The global surveillance initiatives that governments have embarked upon do not make us more secure. They create only the illusion of security.

Sifting through an ocean of information with a net of bias and faulty logic, they yield outrageous numbers of false positives ­ and false negatives. The dragnet approach might make the public feel that something is being done, but the dragnet is easily circumvented by determined terrorists who are either not known to authorities, or who use identity theft to evade them.

For the statistically large number of people that will be wrongly identified or wrongly assessed as a risk under the system, the consequences can be dire.

At the same time, the democratic institutions and protections, which would be the safeguards of individuals’ personal security, are being weakened. And national sovereignty and the ability of national governments to protect citizens against the actions of other states (when they are willing) are being compromised as security functions become more and more deeply integrated.

The global surveillance dragnet diverts crucial resources and efforts away from the kind of investments that would make people safer. What is required is good information about specific threats, not crude racial profiling and useless information on the nearly 100 percent of the population that poses no threat whatsoever.

Posted on April 29, 2005 at 8:54 AMView Comments

Processing Exit Visas

From Federal Computer Week:

The Homeland Security Department will choose in the next 60 days which of three procedures it will use to track international visitors leaving the United States, department officials said today.

A report evaluating the three methods under consideration is due in the next few weeks, said Anna Hinken, spokeswoman for US-VISIT, the program that screens foreign nationals entering and exiting the country to weed out potential terrorists.

The first process uses kiosks located throughout an airport or seaport. An “exit attendant” — who would be a contract worker, Hinken said — checks the traveler’s documents. The traveler then steps to the station, scans both index fingers and has a digital photo taken. The station prints out a receipt that verifies the passenger has checked out.

The second method requires the passenger to present the receipt when reaching the departure gate. An exit attendant will scan the receipt and one of the passenger’s index fingers using a wireless handheld device. If the passenger’s fingerprint matches the identity on the receipt, the attendant returns the receipt and the passenger can board.

The third procedure uses just the wireless device at the gate. The screening officer scans the traveler’s fingerprints and takes a picture with the device, which is similar in size to tools that car-rental companies use, Hinken said. The device wirelessly checks the US-VISIT database. Once the traveler’s identity is confirmed as safe, the officer prints out a receipt and the visitor can pass.

Properly evaluating this trade-off would look at the relative ease of attacking the three systems, the relative costs of the three systems, and the relative speed and convenience — to the traveller — of the three systems. My guess is that the system that requires the least amount of interaction with a person when boarding the plane is best.

Posted on April 20, 2005 at 8:16 AMView Comments

Behavioral Assessment Profiling

On Dec. 14, 1999, Ahmed Ressam tried to enter the United States from Canada at Port Angeles, Wash. He had a suitcase bomb in the trunk of his car. A US customs agent, Diana Dean, questioned him at the border. He was fidgeting, sweaty, and jittery. He avoided eye contact. In Dean’s own words, he was acting “hinky.” Ressam’s car was eventually searched, and he was arrested.

It wasn’t any one thing that tipped Dean off; it was everything encompassed in the slang term “hinky.” But it worked. The reason there wasn’t a bombing at Los Angeles International Airport around Christmas 1999 was because a trained, knowledgeable security person was paying attention.

This is “behavioral assessment” profiling. It’s what customs agents do at borders all the time. It’s what the Israeli police do to protect their airport and airplanes. And it’s a new pilot program in the United States at Boston’s Logan Airport. Behavioral profiling is dangerous because it’s easy to abuse, but it’s also the best thing we can do to improve the security of our air passenger system.

Behavioral profiling is not the same as computerized passenger profiling. The latter has been in place for years. It’s a secret system, and it’s a mess. Sometimes airlines decided who would undergo secondary screening, and they would choose people based on ticket purchase, frequent-flyer status, and similarity to names on government watch lists. CAPPS-2 was to follow, evaluating people based on government and commercial databases and assigning a “risk” score. This system was scrapped after public outcry, but another profiling system called Secure Flight will debut next year. Again, details are secret.

The problem with computerized passenger profiling is that it simply doesn’t work. Terrorists don’t fit a profile and cannot be plucked out of crowds by computers. Terrorists are European, Asian, African, Hispanic, and Middle Eastern, male and female, young and old. Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, was British with a Jamaican father. Jose Padilla, arrested in Chicago in 2002 as a “dirty bomb” suspect, was a Hispanic-American. Timothy McVeigh was a white American. So was the Unabomber, who once taught mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley. The Chechens who blew up two Russian planes last August were female. Recent reports indicate that Al Qaeda is recruiting Europeans for further attacks on the United States.

Terrorists can buy plane tickets — either one way or round trip — with cash or credit cards. Mohamed Atta, the leader of the 9/11 plot, had a frequent-flyer gold card. They are a surprisingly diverse group of people, and any computer profiling system will just make it easier for those who don’t meet the profile.

Behavioral assessment profiling is different. It cuts through all of those superficial profiling characteristics and centers on the person. State police are trained as screeners in order to look for suspicious conduct such as furtiveness or undue anxiety. Already at Logan Airport, the program has caught 20 people who were either in the country illegally or had outstanding warrants of one kind or another.

Earlier this month the ACLU of Massachusetts filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of behavioral assessment profiling. The lawsuit is unlikely to succeed; the principle of “implied consent” that has been used to uphold the legality of passenger and baggage screening will almost certainly be applied in this case as well.

But the ACLU has it wrong. Behavioral assessment profiling isn’t the problem. Abuse of behavioral profiling is the problem, and the ACLU has correctly identified where it can go wrong. If policemen fall back on naive profiling by race, ethnicity, age, gender — characteristics not relevant to security — they’re little better than a computer. Instead of “driving while black,” the police will face accusations of harassing people for the infraction of “flying while Arab.” Their actions will increase racial tensions and make them less likely to notice the real threats. And we’ll all be less safe as a result.

Behavioral assessment profiling isn’t a “silver bullet.” It needs to be part of a layered security system, one that includes passenger baggage screening, airport employee screening, and random security checks. It’s best implemented not by police but by specially trained federal officers. These officers could be deployed at airports, sports stadiums, political conventions — anywhere terrorism is a risk because the target is attractive. Done properly, this is the best thing to happen to air passenger security since reinforcing the cockpit door.

This article originally appeared in the Boston Globe.

Posted on November 24, 2004 at 9:33 AMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.