Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Profiling - Not As Bad As Its Cracked Up

In recent years, I find myself a repeated beneficiary of Profiling. Over 60, and I was offered Bowel Cancer screening, free under the National Health Service. Over 65, an influenza jab. Over 65 and male, screening for Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm - I declined this one; Aneurysm could be a good way to die - well, at least it's fast. And the alternatives are either anxiety (if you end up being put on Watch) or invasive and risky surgery (I'd think twice about that anyway).

These and other health programmes when offered to large groups defined only by age and sex seek to achieve some kind of balance between cost and effectiveness and also to recognise that the programme  itself may create anxieties or risks.  It is for these reasons that they are not simply offered to everyone.

In other circumstances, I find myself wishing there was more Profiling. When I try to re-enter the United Kingdom after a trip abroad, it irritates me - perhaps excessively - that I have to wait while my passport is scanned to destruction. Even more so, when someone standing behind the Passport Examiner quizzes me on Where and Why and How Long? have I been away. None of your business, seems the appropriate response, though I don't give it.

Do I like look a drug courier? Do I look like a people trafficker? Do I look as if I am carrying a Bomb in the Boot of my not-quite new Skoda Octavia ? Do I look like an Afghan warlord travelling on a false British passport? Do I look like I belong to any of the currently Hot categories? No, I don't and you know it. So why don't you leave me alone? Just as I am left alone when I drive across every West European frontier except this one between France and England.

The reasoning seems to be simple. Profiling me Out of this tedious scanning and quizzing would mean that other people were being Profiled In. The UK Borders Agency would probably catch ninety percent of those they want to catch if they restricted their scanning and quizzing to "Males who look as if they are aged between 17 and 37". The rest of us could just be waved through.

There are two immediate objections, as far as I can see.

(1) Once word got around, all those 17 - 37 males would offload their drugs, bombs etc onto their grandads and their girlfriends. This is not an unreasonable fear. Drug dealers often try to find couriers who don't fit Profiling criteria.

(2) It's unfair to 17 to 37 year old males, making them all suffer for the minority among them who ... etc.

This is a more serious challenge but I think it's mistaken. If you are a young driver (say under 25 and until recently a male driver), then you pay higher premiums based on the statistical fact that you are significantly more likely to have a serious road accident. Indeed this is true: you could halve road accidents by keeping young men off the roads. (As a young man, I should most definitely have been kept off the road; I managed a head-on collision within three weeks of passing my Driving Test)

So every young driver pays for the fact that a minority of them will have accidents. That's not unfair. That's what Insurance is all about. By analogy, if you belong to a group which is High Risk for some kinds of crime, then unfortunately you have to put up with the consequence of being thus Profiled. It's simply the flip side of benevolent Profiling: I get offered Bowel Cancer Screening and you don't - you lucky 17 year old - because you are not in a high risk group.

There is a further objection:

(3) Profiling is frequently abused and becomes a vehicle through which prejudices are expressed, notably racial ones. In reality, males who look as if they are between 17 and 37 get pulled over because they are black. Only by eliminating Profiling can you prevent Stereotyping.

I think there must be a flaw in this argument. In a world of finite resources, Profiling is essential to the effective "delivery" (I don't like that word but I'll use it) of a wide range of "services" (ditto). Its misuse tends to discredit the whole idea, but the whole idea is actually a very sound one.


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