Ethics @ Work: Ethnic screening?

Profiling has its uses, but requires adequate review to avoid abuses.

Years ago I used to say the difference betweenIsrael and the US was that in Israel they check your bags when you gointo the store (to prevent a terrorist attack), while in America theycheck your bags when you go out (to prevent theft). But after the 9/11terrorist attacks intrusive checks have become the norm in many placesin the US as well.

Still,a salient, and controversial, difference is the use of profiling.Israeli security personnel routinely concentrate their checks onsuspect populations (principally Arabs), whereas in the US profilingamong US citizens is not allowed.

However, the US policy is under renewed examination from both directions.

On the one hand, there is ongoing interest in profiling and adebate regarding its merits. Just a few weeks ago The Wall StreetJournal featured a video story highlighting the Israeli approach anddiscussing its merits and demerits.

On the other hand, the US does carry out specialsearches for foreign visitors from 14 countries on a watch list. Buteven this kind of profiling has recently come under attack. Last week,a group of dozens of organizations asked the US Department of HomelandSecurity to cancel the policy, which they say would result in racialand ethnic profiling. The letter claims, somewhat disingenuously:"Terrorism is neither ethnically nor geographically confined."

Profiling involves taking advantage of correlations betweeninnocent behavior and criminal acts, where there is no demonstratedcause and effect. Having a particular skin color, or a particularreligion, is not illegal or antisocial and does not cause a person tocommit crimes. Usually we find that only a tiny fraction of members ofsuch groups are criminals. But at the same time we sometimes find thata very high percentage of the criminals belong to a particular group.There is a perceived security benefit to targeting enforcement effortson that group, but is it ethical to do so?

Profiling does raise important questions of equalprotection of the law. The problem is most serious regarding crimeswhose exact boundary is somewhat arbitrary.

For example, everyone has to pay taxes, but different peoplepay different amounts. If one group is targeted for tax evasion, theymay justifiably ask why they have to pay more taxes than other people.It's also forbidden to speed, but the definition of speeding varieswidely. If one group is targeted for speeding, they may ask why othersare allowed to drive faster than they are.

An additional problem is the investigation itself. Members ofprofiled groups may feel inconvenienced or even humiliated at beingsubjected to questioning or searches.

I believe both considerations are minimal in the case ofviolent crime. No one has a right to ask why they aren't allowed toharm others. Police and security personnel need to use all means attheir disposal to maximize their effectiveness.

It is certainly an inconvenience and perhaps even anembarrassment to be subjected to questioning and searches, but theseproblems are not alleviated merely by unnecessarily subjecting moreindividuals to the same regime.

This could be likened to a disease that disproportionatelyaffects a certain subpopulation. There is no guilt or shame involved inbelonging to such a group, but health authorities would be well-advisedto concentrate their screening efforts on the highest-risk individuals,even though screening is burdensome and even though most of the group'smembers feel well.

But I would add two caveats: The first is the problem of sideeffects. Sometimes a traveler is screened for weapons and it turns outhe is carrying drugs or diamonds or something else of interest. Peopleon the watch list would be disproportionately exposed to arrest formore minor offenses. Insofar as no targeting is involved, I don't thinkthe problem is serious, but conceivably it would be appropriate tolimit the scope of searches to the kinds of crime that in the firstinstance justify profiling.

The second problem is the potential for abuse. A group can beharassed or demonized by claiming that it fits a profile for somecrime. Jews should be particularly sensitive to this problem, sincehistorically we have been frequent victims of it. It is easy toconcentrate lawenforcement efforts on Jews and to convict a smallnumber who are truly guilty. This harasses Jews and also gives theimpression that Jews are disproportionately criminals, when in facttheir conduct is no worse than that of others.

How can we prevent abuse of profiling without eliminating thepractice? It would be tempting to demand that the criteria forprofiling should be transparent, but then they could be easily gamed bycriminals.

I think the best solution is some kind of review process; forexample, that which exists for other problematic methods of obtainingevidence, such as wiretapping. Some accountable official could beresponsible for reviewing any security installation that wanted toengage in profiling. This would deter the installations where profilingis not really justified and provide review and legitimacy to thoseplaces where such a policy is truly needed to make effective use ofenforcement resources.

Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Centerof Jerusalem, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College ofTechnology (Machon Lev).