The Trouble With Airport Profiling
As many of you probably already know, Bruce Schneier is a well-known security expert. The following was written in response to an article by Sam Harris (live links at the source). The comments that follow Mr. Schneier’s blog postings are usually interesting, so (unlike regular news/blog sites) I’d recommend actually taking the time to read them.
Oh, and you can follow him on Twitter: @schneierblog
Why do otherwise rational people think it’s a good idea to profile people at airports? Recently, neuroscientist and best-selling author Sam Harris related a story of an elderly couple being given the twice-over by the TSA, pointed out how these two were obviously not a threat, and recommended that the TSA focus on the actual threat: “Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim.”
This is a bad idea. It doesn’t make us any safer — and it actually puts us all at risk.
The right way to look at security is in terms of cost-benefit trade-offs. If adding profiling to airport checkpoints allowed us to detect more threats at a lower cost, than we should implement it. If it didn’t, we’d be foolish to do so. Sometimes profiling works. Consider a sheep in a meadow, happily munching on grass. When he spies a wolf, he’s going to judge that individual wolf based on a bunch of assumptions related to the past behavior of its species. In short, that sheep is going to profile…and then run away. This makes perfect sense, and is why evolution produced sheep — and other animals — that react this way. But this sort of profiling doesn’t work with humans at airports, for several reasons.