Tuesday, July 16, 2013

What Is “Profiling” – And Is It Inherently Bad

From the never-ending hunt for terrorists to the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin criminal case, the term “profiling” is much in everyday news and media.  But do we fully understand the concept?
If memory serves me correctly, “profiling” was initially intended to connote an unwarranted singling out of a particular group for excessive or intense scrutiny.  The term was primarily focused on law enforcement practices,  and was usually translated to mean the surveillance of persons of color by white police officers for no particular or specific reason other than the color of their skin.  The term was then expanded:  “surveillance” was expanded to include practices such as stopping, questioning, detaining, and harassing; and “color of their skin” was expanded to include certain names, ethnic groups, religious affiliations and neighborhoods.  Used in that narrow and straightforward context, “profiling” is not a good concept or effective law enforcement strategy. 
HOWEVER:  With the advent of sophisticated data collection practices and tools, information-gathering has become the norm rather than the exception, so the “simple” concept of profiling is no longer so simple and straightforward.  Now there are empirical ways to gather and analyze data to single out and categorize specific groups for specific reasons – the perpetrators of every type of crime or terrorist act can be specifically identified and correlated to specific kinds of incidents.  This categorization of individuals who are undeniably linked to particular kinds of crimes and incidents creates groups who need to be more intensely scrutinized than groups who have little if any relationship to those crimes. 
Hypothetical case in point:  I am the Security Manager for a store with a significant theft problem.  I have competently performed my due diligence and gathered and analyzed information from 5 years worth of theft statistics including surveillance video and apprehensions and investigations and interviews, and the resulting empirical data shows that 95% of my theft problems have been caused by well-dressed white women over the age of 50.  Is it not then good practice to pay special surveillance attention to well-dressed white women over the age of 50 who come into my store?  And if so, then watching for those women is NOT “profiling” in the bad sense, it is good, reasonable and appropriate security practice which I would be remiss to ignore.  But have I singled out (“profiled”) a particular group for enhanced observation?  Certainly. 
Profiling is not inherently a bad practice.  It is bad only when used in a haphazard, uneducated, unsubstantiated manner.  So the intensified scrutiny of young Middle Eastern men by those concerned with terrorism detection and prevention, or the focused scrutiny of an unrecognized young black man by a neighborhood watch volunteer are not intrinsically bad things.