November 25, 1997

SECURITY AND YOU: THE AIRLINE PROFILING SYSTEM

by Andy Oram
American Reporter Correspondent

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.—The FBI declared on November 18 that the explosion of Flight TWA 800 outside New York City was not a result of terrorism. As they closed the file on the case, I remembered back to the tense months following the disaster, when Congress and the Clinton Administration reassured a terrified and grieving nation that a profiling system would soon be installed at all airports to help pinpoint terrorists. Would the Federal Aviation Administration proceed with the plan, now that the stain of terrorist perfidy had been expunged from the incident?

Flight TWA 800 went down on July 17, 1996. At first, while increasing security at airports, Clinton and FAA warned the public that the causes were unknown and that we should not jump to the conclusion that terrorism was involved. But on Saturday, July 27, a bomb went off among Olympic Games visitors in Atlanta. On the following Monday, Clinton promised tough new measure to fight terrorism, and a few days later Congress passed a sweeping anti-terrorism bill including a new commission to examine airport security.

Some of the proposals considered by the commission were pretty scary from the standpoint of privacy and civil liberties. They discussed databases tracing thousands of individuals, and linking to law enforcement databases. With an open mandate to maintain any kind of information that the designers thought would be useful, the proposal seemed to declare open season on the public’s privacy and to legitimize discrimination against minorities, particularly African-Americans and Arabs.

So last week I phoned up the FAA Public Affairs department and found out that indeed, the profiling plan was going forward—but without any of the most worrisome features. A system called Computer-Assisted Passenger Screening has been designed by Northwest Airlines under a FAA grant and will be installed at all airlines on December 31 of this year.

FAA staff person Rebecca Trexler explained that the profiling system is not new at all and is in no way a response to the TWA disaster. It is based on criteria that airlines have been using for 25 years, and a plan to automate the system was already underway when the explosion occurred.

The profiling system will not maintain any permanent database at all; it simply will process information that passengers tell airlines and will delete all the information on each passenger shortly after a flight lands. In fact, the use of a computerized system will preserve privacy better than the older profiling system because airline staff won’t see the reasons for searching passengers; they’ll just see a red or green light for each passenger. There are no links to law enforcement databases.

The profiling criteria themselves cannot be made public, the most frustrating aspect of the plan. If everybody knew, for instance, (to make up a wildly absurd example) that people were judged not to be terrorists if they bought their tickets in Chicago during the hours of 7 to 9 PM, a would-be terrorist would make sure to buy his ticket according to those criteria.

A number of groups with expert concerns about civil liberties, including the ACLU and representatives of American Muslims, met once with the group designing the airline system. Recommendations from the civil liberties groups included making sure there was no discrimination on the basis of race, nationality, or religion.

But their main recommendation for an independent group to evaluate the guidelines was rejected. Instead, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department reviewed the plan, a less robust compromise because the Justice Department approved the plan at the beginning.

Many passengers, particularly people of color, feel that they are singled out for searches. These are not only demeaning but punitive, because they can cause flights to be missed.

ACLU Legislative Counsel Gregory T. Nojeim says that people complaining about abusive searches are told by the airlines that they’re just following FAA guidelines. Complaints to the FAA are then met with the claim that the guidelines don’t sanction such abuses. In short, passengers get caught in a run-around. The ACLU offers a complaint form for people believing they were unfairly targeted.

So one FAA reassurance is particularly valuable: the new profiling system does not select people on the basis of suspicious characteristics. It simply rules which people are safe (the vast majority of passengers). So if the profiling system causes you to be searched, it’s not due to anything about you. The airline simply doesn’t have enough information to define you as not being a terrorist.

Even though the plan is not the anti-privacy horror that appeared in early press reports, it still raises deep questions about how to square our safety against our liberties. Nojeim claims that profiling did not work against hijackings in the 1970s, and won’t help find bombs either. He points out that we have very few experiences of bombs to work from, so the profiling system is based on speculation. Moreover, all systems tend to grow over time, and there will always be forces pushing to add more intrusive capabilities to this one—particularly if another tragedy occurs.

While the Justice Department review found that the profiling system does not judge by race, color, national or ethnic origin, religion, or gender, it did admit that some groups—particularly certain nationalities—might end up be chosen for searches more than others. Essentially, we are left with the same questions as in many national security campaigns: the unsettling situation of a public policy that lies beyond public scrutiny.


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