Survey: Should US authorities practice profiling at airports?

Update: Poll results — 75% said “Yes!” to profiling at airports.

Click to take survey: Should US authorities practice profiling at airports?

Posted by permission from Dr. Daniel Pipes. Its appearance is independent of this blog, and should not be construed to either agree or disagree with the opinions expressed on this blog, or on any other website.

Time to Profile Airline Passengers?

by Daniel Pipes
New York Sun
August 22, 2006

[NY Sun title: “Calls for Racial Profiling Increase After London Plot”]

The debate over profiling airline passengers revived after the thwarted Islamist plot to bomb 10 airplanes in London on Aug. 10. The sad fact is, through inertia, denial, cowardice, and political correctness, Western airport security services – with the notable exception of Israel’s – search primarily for the implements of terrorism, while largely ignoring passengers.

Although there has been some progress since the attacks of September 11, 2001, most involves the scrutiny of all travelers’ actions. For example, in 2003, the Transportation Security Administration, charged with protecting American airplanes, launched a passenger profiling system known as Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques, or SPOT, now operating in twelve U.S. airports.

Adopting techniques used by the U.S. Customs Service and by Israeli airport security, SPOT is “the antidote to racial profiling,” TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis, said. It discerns, she said, “extremely high levels of stress, fear and deception” through “behavioral pattern recognition.” SPOT agents observe passengers moving about the airport, with TSA agents looking for such physical symptoms as sweating, rigid posture, and clenched fists. A screener then engages “selectees” in conversation and asks unexpected questions, looking at body language for signs of unnatural responses. Most selectees are immediately released, but about one-fifth are interviewed by the police.

After the London plot, the British authorities instituted a crash-course in SPOT, learning directly from their American counterparts.

Building on this approach, an Israeli machine, called Cogito, uses algorithms, artificial-intelligence software, and polygraph principles to discern passengers with “hostile intent.” In trial runs with control groups, the machine incorrectly fingered 8% of innocent travelers as potential threats and let 15% of the role-acting terrorists slip through.

While methods that target the whole population have general value – SPOT did discover passengers with forged visas, fake IDs, stolen airline tickets, and various forms of contraband – its utility for counterterrorism is dubious. Terrorists trained to answer questions convincingly, avoid sweating, and control stress should easily be able to evade the system.

The airport disruptions following the thwarted London plot prompted much discussion about the need to focus on the source of Islamist terrorism and to profile Muslims. In the words of a Wall Street Journal editorial, “a return to any kind of normalcy in travel is going to require that airport security do a better job of separating high-risk passengers from unlikely threats.”

This argument is gaining momentum. A recent poll found that 55% of Britons support passenger profiling that takes into account “background or appearance,” with only 29% against. Lord Stevens, the former chief of Scotland Yard, has endorsed focusing on young Muslim men. The Guardian reports that “some EU countries, particularly France and the Netherlands, want to … introduce explicit checks on Muslim travelers.”

One politician in Wisconsin and two in New York State came out in favor of similar profiling. A Fox News anchor, Bill O’Reilly, has suggested that Muslim passengers ages 16 to 45 “all should be spoken with.” Mike Gallagher, one of the most popular American radio talk-show hosts, has said he wants “a Muslim-only [passenger] line” at airports. In a column for the Evening Bulletin, Robert Sandler proposed putting “Muslims on one plane and put the rest of us on a different one.”

The British Department for Transport reportedly is seeking to introduce passenger profiling that includes taking religious background into account. News from British airports indicates that this has already begun – sometimes even by fellow passengers.

Three conclusions emerge from this discussion. First, because Islamist terrorists are all Muslims, there does need to be a focus on Muslims. Second, such notions as “Muslim-only lines” at airports are infeasible; rather, intelligence must drive efforts to root out Muslims with an Islamist agenda.

Third, the chances of Muslim-focused profiling being widely implemented remain negligible. As the same Wall Street Journal editorial notes, “the fact that we may have come within a whisker of losing 3,000 lives over the Atlantic still isn’t preventing political correctness from getting in the way of smarter security.”

Noting the limited impact that losing 3,000 lives had in 2001 and building on my “education by murder” hypothesis – that people wake up to the problem of radical Islam only when blood is flowing in the streets – I predict that effective profiling will only come into effect when many more Western lives, say 100,000, have been lost.

Other artilces
Domestic Surveillance Works
The Necessity of Profiling
We Need Terrorist Surveillance Now More Than Ever
Airline Insecurity

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Posted on August 22, 2006, in Islamism. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. A quick question for Mr. Pipes. Does he even realize that this foiled attempt in Britain was NOT foiled by any airport security measures? It was not profiling that let British police to the suspects. It is not profiling at airports that led British airport security to these suspects as they were about to board planes. No, these suspects were already infiltrated over one year ago through that good old hard work by individual people.

    Does Mr. Pipes even ask himself why Britons have now THREE TIMES attempted to murder their own through home grown terrorism. These Pakistani immigrants were British citizens, supposedly assimilated into British culture. But as we know, it is hard in Britain to assimiliate with the British if you are not British. Does Mr. Pipes ask himself what would happen to American Muslims if they felt the same kind of isolation that British Muslims feel? Does he ask himself why no American Muslim has yet attempted to murder his own?

    Airport profiling will 1)not work, and 2) be counterproductive.

    1. It will not work. Israel is used as an example of airport profiling that supposedly works. Yeah, and how many Arabs like to go touring Israel on their vacation? Airport profiling for the Israelis works because the number of Muslims that even want to consider visiting Israel is so small, for many reasons, the first and foremost being that Israel’s actions, including its profiling at airports, are anti-Muslim, that why would Muslims even think about going to Israel on their vacation? Or even to live there?

    Secondly, Richard Reed, the shoe-bomber, got on the airplane anyways, and was stopped by, well individual brave people on board. Nothing at the airport (and he boarded in Britain, mind you) stopped him from getting on his plane.

    2. It is counter-productive. I believe that this will only further lead to isolation among Muslims, and lead further to their dislike, and possibly hatred of the West, and their belief that, “hey Osama Bin Laden was right. The West is against us.”

    There is a reason why Britain has now faced three terrorist attacks from homegrown Briton immigrants of Muslim descent. Muslims in Britain are not assimilating well into British culture, and they are isolated very badly. This leads them to not particularly care about Britons dying for a cause they get swept into. In America, our methods of treating our Muslim immigrants is far more lenient, and hey, guess what, it actually works. American Muslims aren’t plotting to kill Americans, and if they are, it isn’t airport profiling that is stopping them. Take for example the supposed plot to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago by Miami converts to Islam. Did profiling stop them, or good old fashioned strong intelligence?

    Profiling will be a counterproductive measure for the United States to take, and I wish people would stop being so fearful. That’s what the profiling policy is driven by: fear. Is that what drives American policies these days? Because it certainly looks like it.

  2. from

    “The problem isn’t that 99% of terrorists are arab, the problem is that only .0000001% of arabs are terrorists. If you detain or scrutinize arabs because they’re arabs you end up with a LOT of false positives.”

    ‘If you detain “suspicious-acting people” you end up with more caught terrorists and fewer false positives. If you detain “suspicious-acting arabs” screeners end up looking for the easy part (“arab”) rather than the meaningful part (“suspicious-acting”).’

  3. Emm, your statement “.0000001% of arabs are terrorists” is false. It’s more like 10% – 15% of Arabs support terrorims actively, whether in the form of safe house, money, publishing, propoganda, training, supplies, dawa donations, schools, to name a few. That equates in real numbers to 100,000,000 – 150,000,000 … so lets profile for the sake of moderate Muslims who do not want to die at that hand of terrorists … sounds like a plan to me.

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