Monday, September 19, 2011

Privacy vs. profiling in airport security

By Prof. Alan (Avi) Kirschenbaum*

As a growing number of North American airports move to using human behavior modeling methods, criticism over the usage of such screening methods is growing.

Jennifer Stoddart
The first to protest was Canadian Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart expressing concern over a government plan to scrutinize the flying public’s behavior at Canadian airports.

This was followed by US Congressman Bennie Thompson, who called for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to halt the implementation of a new behavioral screening program at Boston Logan International Airport. Both Stoddart and Thompson questioned the scientific basis of the plan and expressed concern over related privacy issues.

Anyone who has ever taken Intro Soc or Psych knows that we all profile, otherwise, how would we know whom to marry, in which neighborhood to live, what friends to choose, and to whom to turn when we need a favor!

Similarly, the furor over privacy is really an ideological debate (and its legalistic consequences) rather than a reflection of the same social processes that foster group rather than individual survival through such mechanisms as organizing into family units, community social networks and other types of organizational forms. Group survival has proven itself.

So the fuss about privacy and profiling has very little to do with how people behave and interact in the real world!

Well, it shouldn’t then come as a surprise to anyone that airport security employees profile – the most natural behavioral response when placed in a “survival type” situation where the next passenger might be a suicide bomber! This is no idle statement as there is substantial empirical proof to back this up.

Even passengers’ awareness of the airport security climate seems to illicit the same profiling modes. How can they not be affected when the loud speakers regularly broadcast insistent warnings about not leaving baggage unattended?

So why not just augment an already deeply ingrained behavior in all of us by making profiling a bit more sophisticated (as in the example of the Israeli airport) to enhance the ability of airport personnel to catch the bad guys? What good will your privacy or legal rights be when the bomb goes off?

* The writer is the initiator and coordinator of BEMOSA (Behavioral Modeling of Security in Airports).