Thursday, May 10, 2007

Is Racial Profiling Morally Acceptable at Airports?

If anything, "racial profiling" is morally required at airports.

Of course, there are a couple of caveats here:

1. Since "race" is just a cultural abstraction, what we really mean is that it profiling on appearances should be required.

2. "Profiling" does not mean "arresting" or "punishing" or "guilty!" or any other emotionally-charged term that is intended to make a point by lies and/or hyperbole.

3. "Profiling" refers to "give extra scrutiny".

All inspected people at airports fall into one of four categories:

1. True Positives. These are people who are correctly deemed as being dangerous, and are therefore kept from flying. All security precautions, machinery, and procedures are intended to catch these people -- but have any true positives actually been caught? If they were, they were not publicized .

2. True Negatives. These are people like you (I hope), me, and almost everyone else: Innocent and are deemed as innocent. Walk through the metal detector, and go to your gate.

3. False Positives: These are people who are flagged as being suspicious, but are really innocent. They are (we are told) flagged because of their suspicious behavior; e.g., buying a one-way ticket with cash and no bags, for instance. Theoretically, this group also includes the "flying imams" of Minneapolis, whose behavior was consistent with terrorism, but actually posed no threat.

4. False Negatives: People who clear security and then crash planes into skyscrapers; Mohammed Atta is a famous false negative.

The problems with airport security and profiling are related to Categories (3) and (4). Specifically, false positives and false negatives are errors that, in an ideal world, would be zero. That is, in our perfectly-calibtrated world, only Categories (1) and (2) would exist.

The trouble is that (3) and (4) cannot be eliminated together; in fact, when one category is reduced, the other will need to increase. Specifically, the best way to eliminate (3) is to clear everyone through security. Put another way, if no one is stopped, then no innocent people will be stopped.

And the best way to eliminate (4) is to stop everyone. If every last passenger is carefully screened, then we know (by definition) that bombers and hijackers will be screened, too.

However, neither of the above is practical. It isn't practical to automatically clear or screen everyone (unless passengers would be willing to pay much more for air travel, in both time and money).

Therefore, a balance has to be found between minimizing Errors (3) and (4). But no matter which balance is found there will be problems: Either too many innocent people will be screened or not enough bombers and hijackers will be screened. So, the best approach is to minimize Error (4) to the point where any additional additional reduction would create a disproportionate rise in Error (3). That is, a 1% error rate in allowing hijackers on planes might be better than a 0.9% error rate if that means screwing up the system but good. do we decrease the Error (4) rate without making thousands of travelers even more upset over airport delays? The answer (as you might have probably guessed) is to pre-screen people based on their likelihood of trying to blow up a plane. Put another way, at a given level of "passenger inconvenience", the probability of a disaster is lessened by profiling. Or, put yet another way, if profiling were to be discontinued, one of the error rates will need to go up: Either all passengers will have to go through more arduous security delays (without any added security), or more planes will be blown up. Take your pick.

The people in Category (3) are apparently less concerned about either of the above choices than they are about being singled out as a false positive. They say: "Profiling should cease, and other people should be singled out, too." Never mind that they will still be singled out -- what matters to them is that they will no longer need to feel envy of people in other groups that are waved through. That is, to lessen their sense of envy, everyone else must also be inconvenienced and/or more planes must crash. Adding huge costs to flying to ameliorate envy: Is that defensible? Sacrificing lives to ameliorate envy: Is that the moral solution?

Incidentally, profiling does not require that everyone from one group (say, people in Islamic garb) be singled out to the exclusion of everyone else. In fact, a (non-random) mix of checks would be better; if "looking Muslim" is the only way to get stopped, then hijackers would learn that they can get a free pass onto a plane by not "looking Muslim" -- as they did on 9/11. A probabilistic approach would be best; a completely random screening procedure, as stated above, is not only dangerous, but also ridiculous.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There's an aspect you're missing here.

The term "racial profiling" is designed to obtain a certain outcome in public debates.

What is potentially going on is "profiling" which involves dozens, maybe hundreds, of factors. For example: age, gender, previous travel history, education etc. etc. In theory we mark historical terrorists against these factors and build up a profile of future ones. Some factors will reveal low correlation with terrorist behaviour compared to the general population and will get a low weighting. So we get positive and negative factors plus a weight.

Such profiling will never achieve a 100% prediction for future terrorists, nor is it claimed otherwise. However it is a better guide than random searchs. The more factors we consider, the closer the profile (or profiles) are to potential terrorists. This is not racist because such data is race neutral. Race can only emerge if it found that a close correlation between those factors that denote a particular race and terrorists actually occurs in the real world. Facts are value neutral.

If we are truly colour blind then we ought NOT to ignore any factors, particularly when we attempt to eliminate those that correspond to race. We are racist if we include factors that just focus on race but also if we deliberately exclude any factors that might correspnd to race. A useful profile will only tend to show up say 20year old Arab men if those factors are shown to positively correlate with known terrorists. In other words, profiling will only have a racial bias if terrorists tend to have a racial bias too.

People who oppose profiling claim it is based solely on race, which is false.