Racial Profiling in Airport Security

Airport Security: Solutions to Racial Profiling


Racial profiling in airport security when screening passengers is an obsolete approach that violates the civil rights of minority American citizens. Heavy criticism has been directed to the TSA agents for victimizing people based on their race. For example, in a period of 2 years and 8 months, between 2009 and 2012, 39,000 complaints were filed in the TSA contact center against the rigorous screening strategies (Harawa 4). In another report, racial profiling on minorities of Americans of Arab descent was reported where 24% of complaints filed with the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) on an annual basis were about racial profiling by airline security (Baker 66).

Supporters of racial profiling argue that race and religion are imperative factors to put into consideration when conducting investigations regarding the security of the nation (Gross and Livingston 1414). However, these aspects are grossly superficial as criminals do not fit a specific profile and instead, they come in many forms (Harawa 49). Thus, it is imperative for the TSA to find workable solutions for the racial profiling. These solutions include remodeling the U.S. airport security by adopting the Israeli security model. The main operating principle of the model focuses on hacking the mind of passengers through conversations to establish any nervousness (Gutmann Para. 11). The TSA could also use risk-based strategies that rely on high intelligence (Goldberg Para. 11). This means that the security officers should be recruited to be on high alert when conducting interviews instead of relying only on the standard checklists and the bureaucratic programming they currently use. Another strategy would be adopting the behavioral profiling in place of racial profiling (Schneier Para. 6). Behavioral profiling emphasizes on paying attention to the behaviors of passengers and being on the lookout for any abnormal mannerisms exhibited.  Thus, racial profiling by airport security can be solved by remodeling the US airport security, employing more intelligent risk-based strategies, and using behavioral profiling.

Remodeling the US Airport Security

According to a report by the Amnesty International, since the 9/11 event, racial profiling when traveling through airports has increased exponentially. This is especially targeted to minorities who appear to Muslim or whose place of descent appear to be Middle Eastern or South Asia. As an approach to making the US a safer country, the use of racial profiling as a strategy is a liability. By using race as a basis to profile criminals, law enforcement is easily distracted and this blinds them to the dangerous behaviors that are real threats (Amnesty International Para. 17). To turn this around, the US can remodel its airport security to by adopting the Israeli approach.

The Israeli approach to airport security is based on the idea that an intelligent and vigilant human being is the most sophisticated screening tool and the most important database containing terrorist information is the shared assumptions, experiences, and common sense (Gutmann Para.8). This principle emphasizes on paying more attention to the people and not things. By using this strategy, the Israelis reinforce a multiple face-to-face contact approach where passengers are chat with by security guards at different points. Here, the aim is to assess the passengers’ behavior and look for any suspicious trait as opposed to subjecting the things they carry to rigorous screening.

Moreover, besides relying on the uneasiness of the passengers, the Israeli security team relies on other factors such as paying extra attention to identification documents and if the physical appearance of spotted individuals match that which is in the documents. Another factor is to know why an individual’s passport had a lot of visa stamps from nations that have been established to export terror (Gutmann Para.12). At the center of it, engaging passengers in casual and earnest conversations serve as a great platform for well-trained officers to observe human behaviors and notice any anomalies that creates a basis for further screening. Screening using tools is good, but talking to passengers will give the authorities insights as to what is going on in the minds of the people, which will help in establishing if there is a cause for alarm or not.

Employing Intelligent Risk-based Strategies

Another strategy that the U.S. should adopt is employing risk-based profiling strategies that are more intelligent. According to Goldberg (Para 1), the current strategies that are used to train transport security officers are designed to transform the human mind into the likeness of that of a machine. The author defines it as “garbage in garbage out” whereby bad outputs are as a result of bad inputs. This indicates that the security only strictly adheres to what they have been programmed and that is, the lack of using discretion or common sense. For example, in the case where the airport security forced a 95-year-old woman to remove her diaper under the suspicion of dangerous activities showcase a sever case of bureaucratic programming (Goldberg Para. 9).

Defenders of the profiling argue that abandoning that kind of mindlessness in rigorous screening is a risk itself because then terrorists will innovate and start using items such as adult diapers as improvised explosive devices (Goldberg Para. 10). However, this line of argument is weak as it only assumes that the individuals working at the airport security do not have any amount of mind independence and therefore, they are as untrustworthy as the automatons. Nonetheless, the U.S. can change this by adopting a risk-based strategy just like the Israelis. Instead of overly relying on the bureaucratic programming, the TSA should utilize intelligent profiling carried out by human screeners that are highly intelligent. This includes ensuring that every passenger at the airport is interviewed by security and based on the assessment of the questions; the time taken differs depending on the level of threat perceived (Goldberg Para. 12). In any case, the common denominator is the human living judgment of the security personnel as opposed to the ridiculously expensive scanning tools and hard-to-change checklists.

Using Behavioral Profiling

US airport security should also consider adopting behavioral profiling as opposed to racial profiling. According to Schneier (Para. 1), in the past, security at the U.S. customs used to rely on behavioral assessment to successfully identify potential terrorists. The behaviors identified would include, but not limited to sweating, fidgeting, among others. This practice is what is defined as behavioral profiling and is totally different from the computerized system that is being currently used by the U.S. to assess passengers. The computerized system is significantly flawed as it only relies on superficial traits such as an individual’s race and their patterns in purchasing tickets (Schneier Para. 6). For example, sometimes security at the airports decide who is to be subjected to extensive screening based on simple issues such as a passenger’s status on frequency of flying and the similarity they share with names that have been put on the watchlists by the government (Schneier Para. 6).

The main problem with the computerized strategy is that its defunct. It does not work. It is impossible for a terrorist to fit a profile that is easily plucked out of a population by a computer. Terrorists come in all shapes and forms (Harawa 49). They can be European, African, Asian, Middle Eastern, old, young, male, female. An example that shows that racial profiling does not function correctly is Richard Reid, who is well known as the shoe bomber. Reid was a British whose father was Jamaican (Schneier Para. 7). Another example is the Chechens who were females that blew planes belonging to Russia in 2004 (Schneier Para. 6). Moreover, in recent developments, the reports indicate that terrorist groups are recruiting individuals from other ethnicities that do not fit the stereotyped criminal profile that the U.S. has set in place.

From this analysis, terrorists are an incredibly diverse group of individuals and, therefore, any computer program modeled to profile criminals will not capture this diversity at all thereby making it easier for those others who do not meet the standard profile. On the other hand, if the TSA was to adopt behavioral assessment as its approach to profiling, the results would be different. The behavioral approach cuts through all the aforementioned superficial characteristics and pays more attention on the individual, regardless of their race, ethnic background, gender, or religion (Schneier Para. 11). The TSA should capitalize on training it officers to also be on high alert regarding suspicious mannerisms such as undue anxiety or furtiveness. The success record of behavioral profiling is impeccable. For example, the approach which is used at Logan Airport has helped catch a number of illegal passengers and those with outstanding warrants (Schneier Para. 11).

However, despite the positive promise in behavioral assessment profiling in flagging potential criminals, some agencies such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) challenge the constitutionality of the approach. In truth, although the strategy in itself its not a problem, its vulnerable to being abused by security officers who would happen to succumb into the naivety of profiling individuals by characteristics that are not necessary to security. Therefore, should the TSA adopt behavioral profiling, then it should be adopted as a part of security system made up of multiple facets such as screening of passenger baggage, screening of employees that work at the airport, and conducting random security checks (Schneier Para. 13). Further, the behavioral assessment should not be conducted by regular security officers, but by federal personnel that have been specially trained for that.


The use of racial profiling as a way to enforce security at the airport is a method that is filled with flaws. 39,000 complaints in a span of 2 years and 8 months against the TSA screening procedures (Harawa 4) reflect the severity of the situation. Not only does it insult the civil rights of people subjected to the aggressive screening, but also the standard upon which the approach is based fails to capture a true profile of a criminal as criminals come in all types. Therefore, the TSA should consider remodeling its security system by adopting the Israeli model that focuses on having access to the minds of individual passengers. Further, the U.S. can also apply risk-based strategies and also incorporate behavioral assessment as part of the established security system to work hand in hand with other approaches.