Is there a mathematical approach to profiling

A recent article in the New York Times discussed the issue of profiling. Click here for the article.

Essentially, the article concluded that strong profiling is not effective at detecting malfeasors (people who want to do bad things). Therefore, why profile at all? The article also suggested an alternative mathematical method that may have more effect. Now, before you go commenting on this, I’d suggest that instead of reading what NYT thought about it, you read the actual abstract and the published article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences to the United States of America. You can find it here.

What you will find, besides a ton of math, is that the profiling that was studied was based on prior probabilities such as race, ethnicity, religion and nationality. The methods of profiling used at U.S. airports is based on behaviors, not these other components.

Both, TSA’s behavior detection officers, and those at Boston/Logan, Miami International, San Francisco and other airports that have hired New Age Security Solutions to train their airport personnel, are trained NOT to focus on race, ethnicity, religion or nationality but instead to focus on the behaviors of individuals in the airport. The authors of the recent paper do discuss whether passengers who are more likely to be suspected of being malfeasors may change their behavior, but this did not appear to be the focus of the study.

While there are some that downplay the benefits of behavior detection, keep in mind that behavorial profiling is not only natrual – we all do it as a survival mechanism – but it is effective. The best case study is the case of Anne Marie Murphy who was caught trying to carry a bomb onto an El Al aircraft in 1986.

The better question is this: what type of behavior training is more effective? The methods promoted by Paul Eckman, much of which were adopted for use by TSA, or the methods taught by New Age Security Solutions (NASS). Eckman is a renwoned authority on body language having published “Telling Lies,” (also the basis for the TV show “Lie to Me”) and other books on the subject and for developing the program that TSA adopted for it’s Behavior Detection Officer program.

NASS was founded by Rafi Ron, a former security director at Ben Gurion International Airport in Israel. He brought the Israeli model of profiling (sans factors that related to race and nationality) to Boston’s Logan International Airport. The program has since been implemented at several other airports in the U.S. The security directors at those airports have been very positive in terms of feedback on the program.

An interesting question would be: which type of profiling training is more effective? We likely cannot measure this by how many terrorists each program catches, since we don’t know how many terrorists have been caught or deterred. While some would point to this fact as their argument for questioning whether profiling works, keep in mind that the programs have caught numerous criminals, illegal aliens, those with fraudulent identification, and other assorted crimes. We do know that profiling flagged shoe-bomber Richard Reid on his first attempt (the one that made the news was the second attempt), and profiling caught the individual with bomb making components in Orlando International Airport in 2007.

For the most part, we don’t know if the behavior programs have deterred terrorists from attempting to pass through the airports, no more than we would know how security screening technology (x-rays and magnetometers) have deterred individuals from trying to carry weapons and explosives onto an aircraft. What we do know, is that the most secured airport in the world, Ben Gurion, has successfully used profiling, and it was a standard practice at many European airports both before and after 9/11. Sometimes a good idea, is just a good idea.


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