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Chapter: 

The endless search for profiling

To date, the policy responses to the foiled terrorist attack over Detroit have been marked more by bravado than by reason.

Some policymakers have fallen victim to the appeal of whole-body imaging, in some cases acting with troubling precipitateness: UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown immediately decided to deploy body-scanners, choosing to ignore policy reviews under way in Europe and questions about whether the technology actually works.

In the US, reality has crept in – and shifted the debate. The US Transportation Security Administration has admitted it may be years before body-scanners can be fully deployed. And, if they are deployed, security experts acknowledge that, for reasons of resources and human rights, it would be impossible to scan all passengers.

So, whether body-scans or physical body searches are used, authorities will need to decide whom to search. This has led to a new consensus to deploy ‘profiling'. But who should be profiled and how? No one seems to know, but policymakers everywhere are certain they want it.

Profiling can be done in many ways. All, though, are likely to fail.

The US has chosen, primarily, to identify nationals of 14 specific countries. Much of the world has decried this as ‘ethnic profiling', but it is simpler than that. This is suspicion by passport (and, in all probability, also by place of birth). Nigerians of all religions will now be searched on account of one Nigerian – Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab – who was not radicalised in Nigeria. Richard Reid, the shoe-bomber, was radicalised in his home country: the UK. As US logic goes, it too should be on the list. It is not, yet.

Global travel profiling is possible, but impractical. All travellers who have been to ‘scary' places could be searched, but, as well as large resources, this would require security authorities to create databases of all our international travel throughout our lives. Even if that were achievable and achieved, the volume of data would be overwhelming: all Europeans who have ever sought the sun in Cuba or visited family in Pakistan would be identified as suspects.

Policymakers have also pointed to basic trip-information profiling. Did the passenger pay cash? Was it a one-way ticket? If so, search him thoroughly. But, overall, this is a seductive non-solution. Cash purchases and one-way tickets are far more common than the European public imagines. A similar form of profiling failed to halt the 9/11 attacks on the US. There is little reason to hope that it will help now.

Another temptation is to create lists of terrorist suspects and ensure that they never board a plane. Indeed, the US administration of George W. Bush moved keenly to implement ‘watch-lists'. Inevitably, however, innocent people find themselves on watch-lists, as the US's experience demonstrates: the late US Senator Ted Kennedy was repeatedly searched. Can Europe devise better watch-lists than the US? And who would ensure that the bad are on the list and the innocent are not? Experiences in Europe to date do not engender confidence.

To many, the ultimate form of profiling is intelligence-based. But intelligence is an imperfect science, and intelligence agencies are (understandably) wary of sharing their secrets.

Solutions therefore appear elusive – and, as we should recall, the search has already lasted a long time. The Bush administration spent years devising computer-based profiling systems, only to abandon them – after an open process of audit and debate – because of technical and privacy concerns.

The global history of counter-terrorism policy is littered with failures caused by policymakers acting with similar bravado. European policymakers too have stumbled many times because they have failed to ask openly what is possible, effective and acceptable. Any honest answer that might emerge will be complex and difficult.