Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Friday, January 25, 2008

Behavioral Profiling

Most people, if asked, would say that they are opposed to the practice of racial profiling—that it is wrong and discriminatory for police to pull people over for "driving while black" or for airport security to single out travelers who have Arabic names for extensive searches.

Unfortunately, most people also would consider behavioral profiling to be a reasonable alternative, in the mistaken belief that it has no discriminatory effects on any group. Here’s a description of behavioral profiling as practiced in Israel:

Israeli airport security, much of it invisible to the untrained eye, begins before passengers even enter the terminal. Officials constantly monitor behavior, alert to clues that may hint at danger: bulky clothing, say, or a nervous manner. Profilers—that's what they're called—make a point of interviewing travelers, sometimes at length. They probe, as one profiling supervisor told CBS, for "anything out of the ordinary, anything that does not fit." Their questions can seem odd or intrusive, especially if your only previous experience with an airport interrogation was being asked whether you packed your bags yourself.

Unlike in US airports, where passengers go through security after checking in for their flights and submitting their luggage, security at Ben Gurion comes first. Only when the profiler is satisfied that a passenger poses no risk is he or she allowed to proceed to the check-in counter.

Now imagine how this sort of profiling affects an autistic traveler who wears bulky clothing because of sensory issues, finds eye contact uncomfortable, and often appears nervous in crowded and unfamiliar places—and who will be especially nervous at the airport, knowing that anyone who looks "out of the ordinary" is likely to be pulled aside for a lengthy interrogation. What chance, if any, does this person have of getting past the profilers and being allowed to proceed with his or her travel plans?

And it's not just in Israel that such practices are considered acceptable. Autistic people have been prevented from flying in the United States because they didn't look ordinary enough to satisfy an airport security officer. In some cases, American courts have ruled that looking nervous or wearing unusual clothing was sufficient cause to detain and search a person on the street or in a vehicle. Judges and jurors routinely assume that a defendant or witness who speaks hesitantly or who avoids eye contact is not telling the truth.

When I started writing this post, I spent a little time pondering what category I ought to put it in. Although behavioral profiling is just as harmful to its targets as other forms of discrimination, the labels of "bigotry" and "oppression" didn’t seem to fit this post because the people who support behavioral profiling are not bigots, for the most part, and have no desire to oppress autistics or any other neurological minorities. They simply aren’t thinking about us at all.

I finally settled on the “disability” tag because, as Bev wrote recently on her blog, although a harmless behavioral difference such as talking to oneself would not be seen as a disability under most circumstances, society’s demand that a traveler must not appear out of the ordinary at an airport has the effect of transforming these small differences into disabilities in that particular environment. The only thing it takes to make a person disabled, after all, is a social expectation that some other kind of person is normal.



  • Having been to Israel, and having some of the same issues, I can tell you that the profilers are actually pretty good about this sort of thing. I was pulled aside, my bags searched, and interviewed, but while they did ask questions designed to trip people up, they seemed to recognize the difference between lying and communication problems.

    Considering the constant danger to their aircraft and citizens, they do have a nearly perfect record of keeping the bad guys off the planes (or at least keeping them from hijacking the planes). Whether they have a problem with "false positives," and whether some of those are because the profiling is biased against the non-NT, is something that should be studied.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:51 PM  

  • Hi Walter. Just to clarify, this post wasn't meant as a criticism of Israel in particular; I've never been there myself. I quoted the article about Israeli airport security because it gives a clear explanation of behavioral profiling, which can be found in many other places and situations worldwide.

    By Blogger abfh, at 12:34 AM  

  • one of the many reasons i no longer fly. I mean i could put up with the close quarters, bad food and fear of flaming death, but interactions with security? forget about it. i took my last trip to Canada as well. Interrogation of sketchy looking autistic hippies is blood sport!

    PS love your blog, just started regular reading. you fucking ROCK!!!:)

    By Blogger The cat on bass, at 11:53 PM  

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