Profile me if you can
Profiling is a widespread practice in counter-terrorism. But is profiling as effective as it is thought to be?
In my previous blog I wrote about the assumptions underlying the use of data collection in order to prevent terrorist attacks. One of the things I mentioned was the use of profiling as part of counter- terrorism surveillance. In this blog I would like to put the emphasis on profiling. Because, similar to surveillance and data collection, profiling is considered by authorities to be an effective measure to combat crime and terrorism. But is profiling really all that it is cracked up to be?
Research on profiling
What can research tell us about the use of profiling and its effectiveness? From a theoretical point of view, profiling can be a great tool for pinpointing those who could be or become a threat to society. By determining the characteristics of the potential threats, you can easily pick them out of the population for further investigation. But, as always, there are some practical issues.
The first issue is the reliability of the profiles. Based on the media attention, one would think terrorist attacks happen every day in Western countries. Yet, in reality terrorist attacks are rare. This makes it hard to determine patterns or distil characteristics of the perpetrators. As a result, the characteristics of the profiles will become very general. For example, in the case of terrorism Middle Eastern men are considered to pose a higher risk. This gives ample opportunity for ethnic profiling to rise, as now every man that looks remotely Middle Eastern could be considered a potential terrorist.
Ethnic profiling in terrorism would, besides being ethically questionable, also be counterproductive because of diversity. These days terrorism is primarily associated with Middle Eastern countries. First, this is a very large region on our planet consisting of a great variety of people. Second, terrorism is not exclusive to the Middle East. Al-Qaeda, for example, has a network that reaches far beyond the Middle East to Latin America and the Philippines. This makes profiling based on ethnicity not very efficient or effective, as the group that would fit the profile would be very large. It would also be very easy for terrorists to circumvent these profiles by recruiting someone that does not come from one of these specific regions.
Luckily there is a world beyond so-called hard profiling based on just ethnicity. There is also soft profiling, where other factors besides ethnicity play a role in the selection mechanism. Social scientists have researched behavioural patterns of terrorists in order to produce better profiles. Unfortunately, the results have been far from conclusive and even suggest that profiling a terrorist is not possible. There is a great variation in the psychology and motivation of individual terrorists, but also in the way they are organised. To make it even harder, organisations and methods change over time. So not only is it very difficult to establish a profile, if at all possible, but it would also need to be kept up to date in order to be useful.
It can be concluded that profiling a terrorist is hard at the very least. Terrorist attacks are too rare to form a specific profile and what we know is not very consistent. Yet, we see that authorities are convinced that profiling is an effective measure to combat terrorism. Unfortunately, the measures taken end up being a form of ethnic profiling. The phrase “flying while Arab” did not come into being without reason. So, before authorities resort to new profiling programmes to counter terrorism, they should at least consider the feasibility of these.