Is Technology the Solution to Profiling?

As the debate over profiling post-Christmas 2009 rages on, could technology be the solution?

The Washington Post today issued an editorial yesterday endorsing the use of full- body scanners as a means of airport screening. In fact, some countries plan to increase their use of full-body imaging as a method of screening in the future.

What impact will these machines have on the profiling debate? Well it depends…

If full-body scanners are used as the primary means of screening and all passengers are required to go through them and only them, then such scanners in theory would eliminate the ability of security screeners to profile.

However, if scanners are used as an extra or secondary form of screening — as they presently are in some airports in the United States — then screeners will still have discretion to choose who would be subject to additional screening and who would not. As the Sikh Coalition can attest, screener discretion can and will lead to profiling.

So if set up right, do we perhaps have a silver bullet that could solve the problem of racialized minorities having to check their rights at the door when they enter an airport? Not so fast. There are privacy concerns at play with full-body imaging. This year a measure to allow TSA full-body scanners only as a secondary means of screening passed a vote in the House of Representatives. While the bill has not passed the Senate, its passage indicates that privacy groups, who say the machines are tantamount to a “digital strip search,” do have sway in Congress.

As it turns out, in the fight for rights, we may have a potential fight on our hands between anti-profiling advocates who support full-body imaging as the primary method of screening and privacy advocates who only support full-body imaging as a secondary means of screening. The idea that civil rights and civil liberties groups could be fighting each is certainly unappealing.

But the fight for rights does not have to be a zero sum game. The TSA argues that it has ample protections in place to combat privacy concerns. For example, the screener viewing an image can not see the passenger (added bonus: this protects against profiling as well). In addition, images are deleted immediately once a passenger clears security.

So perhaps it is possible to reconcile privacy concerns with profiling concerns in the full-body imaging debate. With added calls for the use of such technology including by the President today, decision-makers in Washington may not have a choice.

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