Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

January 30, 2006

Malcolm Gladwell on pitbulls and profiling

Filed under: Risk Assessment — by Christian Beckner on January 30, 2006

Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and Blink, has an excellent article in the new issue of The New Yorker entitled “Troublemakers: What pitbulls can teach us about profiling.” The article takes a broad look at the subject of profiling, looking at both the means by which people determine the risk of someone or something, and considering what type of measures are actually effective in spotting a dangerous dog or a potential terrorist.

The article begins with pitbulls and the question of what makes a dangerous dog, but quickly turns this narrative to the analogous question about how to detect potential terrorists:

In July of last year, following the transit bombings in London, the New York City Police Department announced that it would send officers into the subways to conduct random searches of passengers’ bags. On the face of it, doing random searches in the hunt for terrorists—as opposed to being guided by generalizations—seems like a silly idea. As a columnist in New York wrote at the time, “Not just ‘most’ but nearly every jihadi who has attacked a Western European or American target is a young Arab or Pakistani man. In other words, you can predict with a fair degree of certainty what an Al Qaeda terrorist looks like. Just as we have always known what Mafiosi look like—even as we understand that only an infinitesimal fraction of Italian-Americans are members of the mob.”

NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly defends his decisions to conduct random searches and avoid racial profiling for this task:

Kelly was pointing out what might be called profiling’s “category problem.” Generalizations involve matching a category of people to a behavior or trait—overweight middle-aged men to heart-attack risk, young men to bad driving. But, for that process to work, you have to be able both to define and to identify the category you are generalizing about. “You think that terrorists aren’t aware of how easy it is to be characterized by ethnicity?” Kelly went on. “Look at the 9/11 hijackers. They came here. They shaved. They went to topless bars. They wanted to blend in. They wanted to look like they were part of the American dream. These are not dumb people. Could a terrorist dress up as a Hasidic Jew and walk into the subway, and not be profiled? Yes. I think profiling is just nuts.”

A later section of the article discusses what it terms the “instability issue,” and the relative weakness of risk models that focus on specific behaviors, such as buying a one-way airplane ticket, given the fact that terrorists can easily modify their activities in response to awareness of these types of risk triggers. The article suggests an alternative based upon Ray Kelly’s former tenure in the US Customs Service:

Before Kelly became the New York police commissioner, he served as the head of the U.S. Customs Service, and while he was there he overhauled the criteria that border-control officers use to identify and search suspected smugglers. There had been a list of forty-three suspicious traits. He replaced it with a list of six broad criteria. Is there something suspicious about their physical appearance? Are they nervous? Is there specific intelligence targeting this person? Does the drug-sniffing dog raise an alarm? Is there something amiss in their paperwork or explanations? Has contraband been found that implicates this person?

You’ll find nothing here about race or gender or ethnicity, and nothing here about expensive jewelry or deplaning at the middle or the end, or walking briskly or walking aimlessly. Kelly removed all the unstable generalizations, forcing customs officers to make generalizations about things that don’t change from one day or one month to the next. Some percentage of smugglers will always be nervous, will always get their story wrong, and will always be caught by the dogs. That’s why those kinds of inferences are more reliable than the ones based on whether smugglers are white or black, or carry one bag or two. After Kelly’s reforms, the number of searches conducted by the Customs Service dropped by about seventy-five per cent, but the number of successful seizures improved by twenty-five per cent. The officers went from making fairly lousy decisions about smugglers to making pretty good ones. “We made them more efficient and more effective at what they were doing,” Kelly said.

There’s a lot of good insight in this piece that’s very relevant to the challenges in the aviation security and border security missions today. But it’s important to bear in mind that each domain requires a different risk assessment paradigm, given the variable consequences of “failure to detect” in different situations, and the relative openness and controllability of the system that you’re trying to protect. So while it might not be feasible or wise to profile in a subway system, the risk assessment decision looks different in an aviation context, where the consequences of a failure to detect are potentially greater and the environment is much easier to enforce, given that screening checkpoints and other security measures already exist.

Overall, a very thought provoking piece by Gladwell, and one worth reading in full.

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