Sam Harris is Right: Profile away!

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In a recent essay, called “In Defense of Profiling,” Sam Harris defends profiling. The basic idea is sound, even though he’s gotten some opposition. You look at some person and figure “Oh, that person is very unlikely to be a terrorist” based on some model or another, and ignore them. Then you look at another person and you go “Oh, that person is much more likely to be a terrorist … better check ’em out” and so on. If your concept of what makes a person more likely a terrorist is correct, then you will have a better chance of catching a terrorist, and it will take fewer resources to do so.

But it must be done correctly.

I remember once waiting to get on an El Al flight from New York to Tel Aviv, with a connection to Nairobi and Johannesberg. My ticket would bring me to Nairobi, where I would seek transport to the Congo (then Zaire) via a small charter plane or something. I would not be returning for many months (close to a year) so even if I knew when I was coming back, I could not have bought, at that time, a round trip ticket. So I had only a one way ticket. To the middle of Africa.

As I plodded forward in line, I noticed a very tall black man, an American, wearing a huge giant cowboy hat, and speaking rather loudly in a Texas accent. It thought to my self, “This guy is going to have a hard time getting on this plane.” I had profiled him, in a sense. But when he got up to security, he pulled out his Israeli passport (he was, it turns out, a former American citizen, now a citizen of Israel) and passed through with no problems. When I arrived to that checkpoint, they took one look at my ticket and my passport and virtually arrested me. I was hounded by Isreali security operatives for the hours before the flight, separated from my American traveling companion so we could be grilled separately, and interviewed by several different agents. When we finally got to Tel Aviv, we were detained in an a windowless locked room for the four or so hours between flights, then watched carefully when we boarded the plane.

Months later, in a conversation with a highly placed Israeli government official that happened to be a friend of mine, I found out why; Only a few years earlier, a bunch of guys got on a plane leaving Tel Aviv, with one way tickets to somewhere, and hijacked the plane to a point only a few hundred kilometers from where I was going. Remember the Air France hijacking and the raid on Entebbe? When my friend told me that, I suddenly remembered mentioning Entebbe during one of the interrogations, during which they were asking me how I would get to Zaire … because it did, in fact, usually involve a stop in that Ugandan city.

Essentially, I had done the equivalent of going to a suburb of Oklahoma City soon after the bombing there, renting a Ryder truck, and when they ask what kind of insurance I wanted, saying “None. I don’t expect to be returning the truck in one piece anyway. Oh, and can you give me directions to the nearest Federal Building?”

The moral of that story is that the Israeli security people are much better at “profiling” than I am. They spotted some people with a suspicious itinerary. Had the American security people been on the ball with itineraries, they may have prevented 9/11, where several guys who had a loose association independently bought plane tickets using an overlapping set of credit cars (or whatever, I don’t remember the details).

Here’s another one: On the way back from that very trip, I ended up travelling through Frankfurt, and I remember someone … an old man … helping out a younger woman. The woman had a carry-on and a purse, and now she also had a bag of stuff she had bought in the Duty Free shop. Then, she discovered that she could not carry on three things, so this old guy she didn’t even know offered to carry her bag of duty free items for her. I was right there when the security person asked him (this was back in the days when they still did this) if he was carrying anything given to him by someone else. Even though he was, he said “no” and was let on the plane with this young woman’s bottles of liquor. Which could have been bombs. So, right there is a BAD example of profiling. The security people should have known, old people can be easily fooled into carrying stuff they are not supposed to be carrying.

There is a further irony to that flight. It was Pan Am 103 to NY I was boarding. The flight I boarded was the one a few days before the one that was blown up by a bomb in the luggage. (Close call,right?!)

So, profiling can make a difference, you just have to know what and whom to look for. White males between the ages of 20 and 35 are responsible for a large amount of crime, and can probably be recruited into a number of different causes. Timothy McVeigh, Eric Rudolph, you know the type. Old people can’t be trusted. Young white women, like the one who apparently carried the luggage that blew up Pan Am 103 are clearly a danger. Brownish people like the ones who were involved in 9/11 might be terrorists. Black males from England and Africa seem to occasionally try to light stuff on fire, though Black males form the US so far are pretty cool and have not shown themselves to be a problem. But I would keep an eye on them anyway. Why? Because if there is a “type” of person who does not have an association with being terroristic, then terrorists can simply recruit those people. Like Fisher’s rule for sex ratio balance. So, the most likely terrorist is the one who does NOT fit the profile, thus allowing us to add that type of person to the profile list!

See? Its easy, and effective.

Oh, and Sam Harris? He’s totally the type. In fact, in his essay, he admits to smuggling explosive materials onto a plane. Clearly, the security people should have been looking out for white males of a certain age. They certainly dropped the ball on that one. I wonder if Harris can still be arrested for the felony he admits to?

For more information on the statistical and numerical approaches to having fun with profiling, click here.

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28 thoughts on “Sam Harris is Right: Profile away!

  1. Reading this post was really strange. At first, I thought – oh, he is defending “profiling” as far as actually investigating whether or not a person or group of people are likely to be up to no good.

    And I thought – but that’s not remotely what Sam Harris was talking about.

    Then you said that old people can’t be trusted and I was offended until my satire meter finally kicked on.

    I also responded to Sam Harris’ article in a blog post here:

    Although my personal story I related to the subject was not nearly as internationally interesting.

  2. The guy at the beginning of your story sounds like a randomly rolled NPC in some modern RPG.

    GM: The man standing in front of you is *rolls* African and has a *rolls* Texas accent and is *rolls* tall. He pulls out a *rolls* *rolls* *rolls* Israli passport…..

    If there was some way to tell he was Vegan just by looking at him in the line, I bet he would be too.

  3. I thought immediately of the Israeli techniques as soon as I began reading Harris’ piece. Profiling, as you note, if done properly, and for the right things, can be very successful. the Israelis are experts at it.

    They’ve little choice.

  4. The problem with profiling is, once you get into it, and the bad guys know what you are doing, you open a window wide open for them to walk through, but avoiding the profile.

  5. You know, all these profiling stories remind me of Criminal Minds, where the team always has a profile reday within the first 20 minutes of each episode and every profile is always magically correct: so they say

    You’re lokking for a white male between his early thirties and mid forties, highly organized, with creme scenes showing clear scenes of sexual sadism: he craves power and is therefore likely to have a job with a lot of authority and prestige. This is an intelligent sociopath, so he will have married a woman to fit in and appear normal to you but because he cannot tolerate the idea of someone being more succesful than him in his own house, he will forbid his wife from working or only allow her to take menial jobs

    And by the end of the episode, voilà: the guy wa a 41 years old white dude owning a company with 40 employees while his wife was cashier at Wallmart and who was indeed a domestic tyrant: beware the power of the almighty psychologist

    Now I can’t help but imagine Harris giving a profile:
    You’re looking for a middle-eastern brown skinned man between his late teens and late fifties: he’s had a muslim religious education, not christian or jewish or buddhist or whatever: just muslim, and he might have been known in the community for his left-wing activism and pro-political-correctness declarations. He also have a deep seated hatred of America and every person representing its authority: he might hide it, but if you spend enough time calling him a baby rapist he’ll snap at you thus proving that he hates you and your country. Also, the people fitting the profile may not have taken part in any terrorist activity yet but they will start next week or next year, so keep them inside.

  6. So THAT’S why my 41 year old brother with the mental age of 4 and Down Syndrome keeps getting pulled over for a secondary search or pat down! Clearly, he looks suspicious and fits a terrorist profile, unlike me or my 30+ year old sons who have never been searched or checked. It CAN’T be because he is African American, because so are we, so OBVIOUSLY Down Syndrome fits a terrorist profile.

  7. In the world of Psychology/Psychiatry there IS a Pathological condition that receives the label of “projection” – where one projects the elements of one’s own psychopathology on to others !!!!

    THUS – the act of profiling MUST take this psychodynamic into account. Naturally, the Good Guys – will always assume that it’s ONLY Bad Guys who project – NEVER the Good Guys – because the Good Guys are ALWAYS Psychologically Healthy.

    SO MUCH for Profiling – complete with Projection !!!!!

    Have fun with the psychological aspects of Projection !!!!

  8. Understanding of what makes a terrorist is a barrier to effective profiling.

    Recently in the UK there’s been a furore about us sharing our flights data with US intelligence for anti-terrorist purposes. It includes personal information down to the food your order (halaal food anyone?). This would, I presume, be put to use modelling terrorist behaviour.

    I personally see it as a good thing that we can build models to better predict the likelihood of a person being a terrorist, using as many subtle details as possible to make it difficult to evade the system. It also means that those of us who don’t fit the profile stand a better chance of escaping enhanced security protocols.

  9. @Bob, random capitalisation aside…

    Whilst projection is a problem in simplistic scenarios involved in (for example) racial profiling (or Texan-hat profiling), it’s possible, given sufficient data, to build a complex logistic model to predict the odds of someone being a terrorist, reducing the amount of subjectivity in the interaction to a negligible level. There will always be room for projection, but I see no reason why this couldn’t be further minimised by training staff to be wary of it. The fear that profiling would lead to inappropriate discrimination is unjustified in cases like this.

  10. The one-way ticket rule is a perfect example of fighting the last battle. By now everyone knows that travellers with one-way tickets receive extra scrutiny from security, so what cheap-ass terrorist isn’t just going to go ahead and buy a return ticket? It’s a terrible profiling rule at this point because no terrorist would be stupid enough to use a one-way ticket now.

  11. I want to add two things to my comment about profiling. 1) I was not actually thinking of terrorist profiling specifically, but profiling in general. It may be that it works better in some areas than others. Once terrorists (organized in some particular place in the politicochroncynclastic geography) become even a little sophisticated, it is probably a tool that won’t work. Having said that, I would assume that certain terrorist operations work with non-terrorist as well.

    Also, I am not at all certain that one can predict which of the population would be a terrorist, or anything else. To me, the valid use of profiling is when there is already a person you have in mind, possibly an individual you know is out there but don’t know exactly who or where, possibly a specific individual, and profiling could be useful, perhaps, in filling in blanks.

    Predicting who among us walking into an airport is more likely to be a terrorist might work at the tenth of a percent level, but only temporarily and applying this knowledge in the US is a violation of the fifth amendment and more.

  12. blot, sharing that information could be useful–if there were enough terrorist incidents from which to generalize. If there are not, and I’ve yet to see anyone make a good case that there are, the only thing accomplished is invasion of privacy.

  13. Realize that Sam Harris isn’t even advocating for sophisticated profiling or targeting techniques – that is a real discussion. However, the model-based evidence suggests (I linked a couple studies on my blog) that even those types of techniques tend to waste resources on constantly scrutinizing the same innocent people and are not much better than randomization.

    He instead, insists that we should never scrutinized the very young or very old and target, specifically, people who dress in traditional Muslim dress as well as anyone who “looks Muslim” (whatever the heck that means). He doesn’t advocate that people be flagged due to some complex aggregate of specific criminal/terrorist-typical behaviors; but that TSA agents should instinctively know “at a glance” who they should target.

    The only way to make his stance the least bit defensible is to completely re-frame it.

  14. This is vomplete nonsense. No young white woman carried a suitcase rgat blew up Pan Am 103 even in the official story, which is a complete lie.

    The first device was attached to AVE40412 Pa by an Iranian with the name of Ahmadi Beladi Behbehani, now dead. The second was carried on by Captian Joseph Patrick Curry of the US special forces who had been given the device by Parviz Tahiri at Franfurt Arport. Tahiri was an Iranian Kurd

  15. RW Ahrens says:
    May 1, 2012 at 5:49 pm

    I thought immediately of the Israeli techniques as soon as I began reading Harris’ piece. Profiling, as you note, if done properly, and for the right things, can be very successful. the Israelis are experts at it.

    But the Israelis do use racial profiling.

  16. In a small town we had a serial arsonist, who kept burning down people’s camps when they were empty. The gurus got onto profiling and were sure it was a white male with some kind of police/authority linked background. Turned out to be a woman. What did work in this case was not profiling, but locating the suspect on the basis of the location of all the fires.

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