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TSA Behavior Profiling Triggers Massive Racial Profiling Scandal

August 15, 2012 at 7:42 PM | by | ()

Yeah listen. We're running out of new ways to explain how in practice there's no such thing as truly "random" screening, the kind that avoids any kind of profiling. Either you get top-down profiling, where some official creates a profile and tells agents to look for it, or you get bottom-up profiling, where you devolve authority to agents on the ground and they use their own judgment.

Top-down profiling is problematic because we live in a decent society and we don't want government officials telling airport security agents to search for travelers who fit a look. But the bottom-up approach is problematic because it lets sexist and racist douchebags harass women and African-Americans with impunity, because they say the travelers were acting weird.

We hit this theme pretty hard last year, writing again and again that giving more responsibility to agents on the ground risks rampant sexual harassment and racial harassment. Then TSA launched their behavior-based system, which gave agents on the ground more responsibility.

How do you think that went?

The New York Times broke a story over the weekend about how TSA's behavior-based system in BOS has become "a magnet for racial profiling, targeting not only Middle Easterners but also blacks, Hispanics and other minorities." It turns out that if you tell agents they're allowed to pick and choose who they want to pull aside, "they just pull aside anyone who they don’t like the way they look—if they are black and have expensive clothes or jewelry, or if they are Hispanic." We know, right?

Apparently at Logan, natural bad tendencies were exacerbated by pull-aside quotas. That might have caused even the most earnest TSA agent to fall back on lazy stereotypes, since the behavior profilers are chronically underfunded and undertrained.

There's no easy answer to this. One solution is to decrease TSA's funding so they close up shop, which won't happen because Americans like TSA. Another solution is to increase TSA's funding so they hire better people, which won't happen because Members of Congress showboat about how Americans don't like TSA. But Congress is going to hold hearings about this anyway, because they're really useful that way.

[Photo: Crashworks / Flickr]

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