This cartoon is about profiling. A profile consists of a particular set of characteristics and behaviors that are deemed as suspicious by law enforcement. Profiles can be created by people or generated by algorithms that identify suspicious things from data of known criminals or terrorists.
There are several concerns with profiling. Profiles can be infected by human bias, even when generated by an algorithm. For example, suppose government officials feed into an algorithm data only on foreign terrorists but not on domestic-born terrorists. The algorithm will create a profile matching characteristics and behaviors only of foreign terrorists. Profiling can also result in many false positives. It can have discriminatory effects if it targets people of certain races or nationalities. It can also chill certain lawful activities if they are deemed as suspicious.
Profiling is an inexact practice, filled with potential bias and pitfalls. It should be done with humility, skepticism, and critical reflection.
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This post was authored by Professor Daniel J. Solove, who through TeachPrivacy develops computer-based privacy and data security training. He also posts at his blog at LinkedIn, which has more than 1 million followers.
Professor Solove is the organizer, along with Paul Schwartz, of the Privacy + Security Forum an annual event designed for seasoned professionals.