Passenger Profiling: cases for and against

Passenger Profiling: cases for and against

Passenger profiling continues to be a contentious issue with ongoing debates about its use in airports. Managing the growing number of passengers with the same or less resource means identifying people who pose a potential threat will remain a critical challenge. The levels and use of security technology across airports are at the highest levels in history and this is likely to further increase. Questions must be raised over the best way to utilise this technology in conjunction with security and airport staff and whether passenger profiling has a place in security operations. Anthony Leather considers the status of passenger profiling today and how the evolving airport could shift the argument.

Passenger numbers across airports continue to grow. IATA’s latest forecast suggests a compound annual growth rate of 3.5% over the next 20 years, seeing a rise of 4.3 billion passengers in 2018 to 8.2 billion by 2037. Airports remain a high priority target for international terrorist organisations, criminal activity and illegal movement of people. Security across airports remains heightened with growing investment in technology and more innovative solutions that deliver the highest levels of security that is balanced with a positive passenger experience.

Whilst technology will always play a critical role in airport security, there are limitations especially around the detection of more subtle behavioural indicators such as trembling or excessive sweating.

In its purest form passenger profiling relies on using specially trained security and airport staff to recognise specific behavioural indicators through observation and questioning that could be used to help identify travellers that have illegal, criminal or terrorist intent.

The technique is not widely used throughout airports across the world and both the positives and negatives of such an approach should be considered.

Cases ‘for’ centre around an increased level of security.

  • Identification and prevention of an attack. The most obvious argument for passenger profiling remains the fact it could disrupt a potential attack. Unless very well trained and prepared, anyone who is engaging in criminal activity or about to carry out an attack will not be able to hide all the signs of nerves, adrenaline and other suspicious characteristics that could identify them.
  • It is unpredictable. Processes and expectations of airport security is a relatively known quantity for all passengers. Although the technology configuration may be different, with a few variations based on country requirements, the general process and checks remains consistent. This creates the opportunity for those wanting to bypass security to prepare and circumnavigate systems. Although additional screening is in place and random at many airports, the predictability of the security process provides a potential weakness to exploit. Passenger profiling introduces unpredictability and a layer of intervention and disruption that makes it more difficult for terrorists to plot their way around.
  • Providing a security mindset and network across airport staff. The profiling process does not have to be limited to specific checkpoints or security. Staff across the airport working for the airlines, retail, restaurants or facilities management could be trained in behavioural analysis that allows them to identify suspicious behaviour. This would allow a much greater reach across the airport and a mindset of security that increases the opportunity to identify potential threats.

Cases ‘against’ centre around how effective the process is and whether the extra layer of security can be justified.

  • Civil liberty concerns. Many groups have argued that profiling violates civil rights through enhanced security checks and using passenger information to create risk profiles, especially if they have not explicitly agreed to security accessing that information. The balance between security and civil liberty remains and will continue to be a contentious and well debated issue.
  • Stigma of racial and ethnic profiling. If passenger profiling is done correctly then race, ethnicity and religion should have no impact, as passengers are selected only by suspicious or uncharacteristic behaviour. However, there are concerns that the profiling process naturally leads to stereotyping, targeting of specific groups and/or racial profiling.
  • The margin of error is high. Currently there is no accurate data that proves passenger profiling is either effective or ineffective. However, there is a large margin of error and many reports have documented the unfair treatment and questioning of passengers. The key question is what are in the parameters of unusual or suspicious behaviour? An airport is often a stressful environment and passenger behaviour could be due to a range of other factors. They could be a nervous flyer, feeling unwell, late for the flight or have other extenuating circumstances in their lives. Requiring them to undergo extra security measures and further questioning is adding to this stress and unnecessary. This further raises the issues over return on investment. Will the investment to train staff and implement this time-consuming procedure provide the desired level of security? How effective profiling is remains to be proven.
  • Disruption to the passenger travel experience. Leading airports around the world have invested significantly in passenger-centric operations to improve the passenger experience, increase loyalty and grow non-aeronautical revenues through providing more commercial services. This is specifically true for hub airports that act as connectors for smaller airports across the world. Financial performance and growth depend on the positive passenger experience. Large queues and stressful security measures is contradictory to this and will not be accepted by airport operators or airlines unless mandated or the benefit is clear.

“…Israel is open about using profiling as an essential part of their security regime…”

There are examples of passenger profiling in Israel, the US and India that have fuelled the debate around the use and effectiveness of the technique.

Israel is open about using profiling as an essential part of their security regime. Passengers are interviewed and questioned across the whole process, from arriving at the airport to entering the terminal, queuing up to actual check-in, and security checkpoint to boarding the plane. Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport is widely regarded as one of the most secure airports, in part because of this process, however the impact on queuing times and passenger experience is notable. Many have compared the process to feel more like an interrogation. The security environment in Israel has to be considered, and whilst this works for them, it is clear that this approach would not be transferable universally across global airports.

In July 2018 the Boston Globe reported that the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) had been running the ‘Quiet Skies’ programme since 2012. This required air marshals to identify and follow persons of interest. These were not people on watch lists or law enforcement databases but rather people who aroused some kind of suspicious behaviour. The marshal observes several characteristics including passengers being abnormally aware of surroundings, any behavioural indicators (excessive fidgeting, sweating, eye movement, staring), changing appearance from passport or during time in airport and creates an after-action report. The TSA has not announced any further details about the programme, but in December 2018 said it will dial back the information that it collects on passengers following criticisms from the public and Congress.

“…the TSA had been running the ‘Quiet Skies’ programme since 2012. This requires air marshals to identify and follow persons of interest…”

In March 2019 the Times of India reported that the Central Industrial Security Force, responsible for 61 airports across India are ‘training 3,000 personnel for profiling’ according to the CISF Director General.

In general, passenger profiling and behavioural analysis has been met with reluctance, challenged by civil liberty groups and is not widely adopted across the aviation sector.

Passenger Profiling and the Future of Airports

Airports are evolving from infrastructures that provide a service to airlines to becoming a more passenger-centric operation. Investments in digital platforms to improve passenger experience and provide seamless movement through an airport is changing how they interact with staff and security. As such, passenger profiling must be expanded to consider not just human interaction and behavioural analysis, but also using the data profile and obtainable information on the passenger. It is through this process that there will be greater engagement with passenger profiling in the future that can complement existing security systems.

“…the Central Industrial Security Force, responsible for 61 airports across India are training 3,000 personnel for profiling…”

The increased focus on passenger operations and the availability and affordability of technology is leading to innovation across both landside and airside operations. Check-in is becoming a remote process, with most passengers now completing the process before arriving at the airport. Already the check-in desk is becoming outdated and the increasing automation of bag drop means that passengers can now get to security on international flights without any human interaction. Passengers are engaging more with technology, providing data, including biometrics in exchange for a better experience throughout the airport. A good example is Changi Airport Terminal 4 that allows passengers to go through check-in, security and boarding processes without any human interaction.

A single biometric token is beginning to make the entire process more seamless by using facial recognition to capture the passenger’s biometric data and then checking against travel documents. This then creates a single token that can be used through the entire passenger process, from bag drop, to entering security, boarding gates and immigration.

At the heart of future planning are concepts related to single biometric tokens. Airports and border forces will know who is arriving and people will be pre-screened and bags scanned seamlessly. The key to this transition is digital technology that enables systems to collaborate and analytics to run risk scenarios. It also requires a global network with information being shared between countries. This already exists through, in the United States ESTA’s (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) and, internationally, the Passenger Name Record (PNR), but the future will be more seamless – less queues and physical barriers and bigger and brighter airports to excite travellers.

This will see a reduction in human error, for example the widely reported incident in February 2019 that saw a British tourist fly home from Prague accidently with the wrong passport, leaving his friend stranded – something behavioural passenger profiling would not have picked up as he was unaware that he was using the wrong passport.

“…Changi Airport Terminal 4 allows passengers to go through check-in, security and boarding processes without any human interaction…”

These developments do not answer some of the negatives of passenger profiling. There are still concerns about how personal data is being used and analysed. However, there is a growing shift across law enforcement and security organisations using data and analysis as the corner stone for security decisions and risk assessment. Airports are no different and will have to continue to adapt to their evolving operational environment. Security at the airports will remain paramount for governments and passengers and using this data to identify potential threats and risks will increase. The focus of profiling will shift from identifying potential risks at the airport, to alerts based on information before passengers arrive. This gives security organisations the time to decide on appropriate actions and interventions and would likely include different levels:

  • Low Level – minimal inspection including a check of passport, flying history check and national law enforcement databases.
  • Medium Level – low level checks completed, singled out for extra screening at airport and further checks on law enforcement and intelligence databases.
  • High Level – enhanced checks and passenger to be stopped and questioned by security staff or border agencies.

Finally, there will always remain a place for human interaction at the airport, but perhaps not on the scale of detailed behavioural analysis that has been suggested in the past. All security and airport staff will continue to be trained to be alert to any suspicious event, activity or behaviour of a passenger. Networks and reporting mechanisms will continue to be built to capture this and it will remain a core part of a wider security operation.


Most passengers accept that using their data is a necessary process to provide a certain level of security. Assessments of this information can help to build passenger profiles and identify potential risks through analysis and comparison. It is important to note that the use and analysis of data must be in line with ethics and national legislation.

Issues remain over who holds the data, who processes it and who analyses it. At present most of this is held by the airlines and not shared with the airport. They still have very little information about who is going to arrive at their airport, which creates a challenge for security. However, as these barriers start to break down in the future, we are likely to see the growth of passengers supplying data to allow them a quicker and more pleasurable experience through the airport.

Anthony Leather is co-founder of Westlands Advisory, an analysis and strategy organisation that aims to improve the quality of analysis and insight to the security industry. Based in London, he provides strategic advice to a range of security and government organisations. He can be contacted at:

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