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Passenger Profiling: Problems and Perspectives

Sep 17, 2012

by Francis Spranza

President, Spranza Inc.

To date, the concept of Airline Passenger Profiling has become a topic of great debate. Those advocating its use appear convinced that information on the way one looks, acts, country of origin or type of travel alone can disclose criminal intentions and determine if that traveler is a threat to airport safety and security. While those opposed to its use, call the technique racist, ineffective, and even foolhardy.

It must be understood that the science of Profiling can be a powerful tool in assisting security personnel in determining risk - when developed and used in conjunction with other technologies and scientific disciplines. The science and statistics which lay behind the Profile Questionnaire when coupled with multi-level screening techniques and timely intelligence can offer a valid and statistically significant determination of the potential risk a given traveler may pose.

To ensure validity and the efficacy of any criminal profiling process, we must begin with the candidates for the position. Each potential profiler must possess:

  1. Background Knowledge of the potential threat - individuals and groups
  2. Deep Understanding of the dynamics of interpersonal communication and human non-verbal behavior
  3. Highly Developed Strategies of observation, analysis and scientific decision making
  4. An Acute Ability to multi-task

As early as 1994, Northwest Airlines began to develop a computer-assisted passenger pre-screening system (CAPPS). Section 307 of the Federal Aviation Reauthorization Act of 1996 (P.L. 104-264, 110 Stat. 3253) directed the U.S. FAA to assist airlines in developing a computer-assisted passenger profiling system in conjunction with other security measures and technologies. Shortly thereafter, concerns arose that CAPPS might be used to discriminate by using factors such as the passenger's race, religion, or national origin. Although legitimate components within the system, these elements alone are by no means the sole determining factors of passenger risk.

Today's Profiling techniques involve the use of scientifically developed Questionnaires based on various statistically validated Risk Matrix instruments (such as the one shown to the right). Today's shared technologies, involving LAN and WAN database access, coupled with hand held devices and airport based CCTV, have recently been added to the process. These functions allow security professionals to positively identify, in real time, suspect passengers and compare their images and travel data with those promulgated on "no fly lists," fugitive warrants, or those designated by customs and immigration departments as undocumented travelers. Utilizing features of the World Wide Web – such as: secure access, servers and routers- it has now become routine to query these types of databases from around the globe and receive near instantaneous response.

As it is presented today, in its most basic form, profiling as a science involves:

  1. Observing a subject's demeanor as well as their responses to Matrix-developed questions
  2. Profiler's interpretation of the subject's personality characteristics, behaviors and autonomous displays
  3. Utilization of effective Management Information Systems (MIS) in exchanging and analyzing data in real time.
  4. Understanding the unique cultural context of the subject individual and their reactions, responses and demeanor.

Following a period of observation and selection, interactive, interpersonal communication between Profiler and subject / passenger is inevitable. This process always involves the transmitting of information - in the case of the Profiler - a question- with the intent of obtaining a response in the form of immediate feedback from the traveler (subject). Proper profiling skills demand an immediate multi-dimensional assessment of the subject individual. As such, when verbally engaged, the profiler must judge the degree to which the traveler understands the questions, as well as an assessment of the demeanor, content and context of his/her responses. In order to be effective, candidates for profiler positions must initially understand the dynamics of interplay at work between Profiler and subject passenger.

Verbal Communication

Security personnel assigned as Profilers in the field can be faced with a number of situations where passengers appear to be uncooperative, if not outright hostile to the invasion of their personal space and privacy. Often compounding the situation, the general stress of travel, language and cultural issues can cause travelers to become ill-tempered. When interacting with a subject passenger, the Profiler must ask themselves if any of the following problems might exist:

  1. Confusion in Message
  2. Use of the wrong language or body language
  3. Individual and Group internal Prejudices
  4. Language (terms) not understood

In some instances problems can originate with the Profiler themselves. As the sender of the message, Profilers may, themselves, create barriers leading to unnatural demeanor, confusing or suspicious responses in the communication process.

Not all problems encountered, are the fault of the Profiler. Passengers, travelers and visitors to the airport all may exhibit one or more of the following during their encounter with airport security, law enforcement, customs or immigration profiling officers.

  1. Poor Listening skills
  2. Jumping to conlusions
  3. Hearing only part of the message
  4. Rejecting message which is contrary to existing beliefs
  5. Emotional barriers


Profilers must be aware of an additional set of barriers, which can cause miscommunication between subjects and themselves and therefore lead to flaws in the Profiler's analysis of the subject individual or situation at hand. In some instances these barriers may be intentional on the part of the subject to deceive the Profiler, in other cases they may be purely situational and relatively simple to overcome given a basic understanding of their nature.

Role of Non-Verbal Communication

Interaction between a Profiler and their subject is by no means limited to verbal communication alone. Nonverbal communication, although devoid of words and sentences derives its meaning largely from the passenger's own past. Some examples of this type of communication include: "No Smoking Signs", Lavatory signs, and printed information. Human nonverbal communication includes such aspects as: body language on the part of Profiler and subject, posture, and the use of personal space (proxemics). Profilers must always be observant of a subject's:

  1. Body motion
  2. Physical charateristics
  3. Touching behavior
  4. Paralanguage
  5. Proxemics
  6. Artifacts
  7. Surrounding Environment

"A central task (of the profiler) is to recognize micro facial expressions -- a flash of feelings that in a fraction of a second reflects emotions such as fear, anger, surprise or contempt,” said Carl Maccario, who helped start the program for TSA. (Source)

Among the cues that all Profilers should be keenly aware of:

Emblems - Acts which have a direct verbal translation or dictionary definition. EXAMPLE: Holding up one's hand to signal stop Used when verbal channels are blocked (such as by aircraft noise)

Illustrations - Nonverbal acts which accompany speech. These can illustrate a point, provide accent to a statement, or emphasize a point to be made.

Affect Displays - These are passenger facial configurations, which display emotion or emphasis a statement. They can repeat, augment or contradict.

Regulators - Passenger acts which maintain and regulate the back and forth nature of human interaction. They tell the Profiler to continue, halt or hurry. Consist mainly of head nods, eye movements and vary from culture to culture

Adapters -Restless movement of hands and feet, which display anxiety, fear or distress. Doer is generally unaware of these actions.

Then too, the way in which Profilers are perceived by subjects during the observation, approach and questionnaire process can determine to a degree the level of cooperation, hesitation or nervousness exhibited by the subject / passenger at any given time. In turn, misinterpretation of the subject's motivation(s) can dramatically affect the validity of any assessment and analysis of these displayed behaviors.

By selecting the right approach in response to observed verbal and nonverbal cues, Profilers can often avoid unnecessary conflict and correctly assess any existing threat posed by an individual or situational scenario.

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