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The positive profiling problem: learning from the US experience

Publication date: 
19-Oct-2006

Far too many efforts to combat terrorism have focused on the use of sensitive personal information and mass surveillance - techniques that have been demonstrated to deliver limited benefits and that create substantial negative outcomes.  Much of the responsibility for this approach to anti-terror policy belongs to the US Government. The EU however is not exempt from this type of policy, however. For a number of years the European Union and its Member States have been implementing expansive data surveillance policies that in many ways mimic US policies and in some particular ways go well beyond what is considered acceptable in the US.

We noticed a resurgence of this trend after the security alert in August 2006 upon the arrests in Britain that broke up a suspected plot to target transatlantic air travel.  Immediately across Europe we saw a surge of commentary from the media, experts, and policy-makers on the need for positive profiling of passengers and expanded surveillance techniques to detect terrorists. This led eventually to reduced protections over passenger data protections to the US, renewed calls from US authorities for extended access to this data, and calls within the EU to accelerate policy-making to ensure that EU authorities are granted powers to access and process passenger data.

Nearly everyone presumed that positive profiling actually existed, was operational, and was a reasonable response to increased concerns about security.  In fact, the very definition of 'profiling' is unknown and its practical application is quite limited. Technologically it is not only impractical to implement but it is also politically unpalatable.