Since the London bombings, there has been a lot of discussion about profiling. To help, here is what I wrote on the subject in “Beyond Fear” (pp. 133-7):

“Good security has people in charge. People are resilient. People can improvise. People can be creative. People can develop on-the-spot solutions. People can detect attackers who cheat, and can attempt to maintain security despite the cheating. People can detect passive failures and attempt to recover. People are the strongest point in a security process. When a security system succeeds in the face of a new or coordinated or devastating attack, it’s usually due to the efforts of people.


Despite what many people think, terrorism is not confined to young Arab males. Shoe-bomber Richard Reid was British. Germaine Lindsay, one of the 7/7 London bombers, was Afro-Caribbean. Here are some more examples from a speech by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta:

“In 1986, a 32-year-old Irish woman, pregnant at the time, was about to board an El Al flight from London to Tel Aviv when El Al security agents discovered an explosive device hidden in the false bottom of her bag. The woman’s boyfriend – the father of her unborn child – had hidden the bomb.

“In 1987, a 70-year-old man and a 25-year-old woman – neither of whom were Middle Eastern – posed as father and daughter and brought a bomb aboard a Korean Air flight from Baghdad to Thailand. En route to Bangkok, the bomb exploded, killing all on board.

“In 1999, men dressed as businessmen (and one dressed as a Catholic priest) turned out to be terrorist hijackers, who forced an Avianca flight to divert to an airstrip in Colombia, where some passengers were held as hostages for more than a year and a half.”

The 2002 Bali terrorists were Indonesian. The Chechnyan terrorists who downed the Russian planes were women. Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber were Americans. The Basque terrorists are Basque, and Irish terrorists are Irish. The Tamil Tigers are Sri Lankan.

And many Muslims are not Arabs. Even worse, almost everyone who is Arab is not a terrorist – many people who look Arab are not even Muslims. So not only are there an large number of false negatives – terrorists who don’t meet the profile-but there an enormous number of false positives: innocents that do meet the profile.

-The Crytpo-Gram by Bruce Schneier

Profiling – if done properly is a good thing. It’s when we start doing it incorrectly that we run into problems. I think that we need to realize it’s benefits and, and train folks how to legally and effectively profile. Point in fact, I think that we all already do.

Everyone does it all the time. When you see someone lurking in a dark alley and change your direction to avoid him, you’re profiling. When a storeowner sees someone furtively looking around as she fiddles inside her jacket, that storeowner is profiling. People profile based on someone’s dress, mannerisms, tone of voice … and yes, also on their race and ethnicity. When you see someone running toward you on the street with a bloody ax, you don’t know for sure that he’s a crazed ax murderer. Perhaps he’s a butcher who’s actually running after the person next to you to give her the change she forgot. But you’re going to make a guess one way or another. That guess is an example of profiling.

So, by looking at a situation, evaluating the possible risk and acting with out first getting conformation that the threat is real, well, you are a profiler. You dirty bad guy. :)

I wish that we lived in a world were we all acted with pure motives, no one ever hurt anyone else – and making personal security decisions based on gut instinct was not needed. But we do not. So, we have to use the tools at hand. Our gut is one of the best tools that we have, as long as we are not consumed by terror and fear of imaginary bad guys behind every corner.

1 thought on “Profiling”

  1. I profile every day, and it preserves our Democracy. Like it or not it’s how those of us in a position that is supposed to protect others use our power to keep the world more safe.

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