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Racial profiling for national security is not quite what you think

Our border agencies examine behaviour and characteristics to create profiles of high-risk travellers. And this is as it should be.

Once again the hot-button issue of profiling refugees and migrants for counter-terrorism and border security has reared its head.

Last Friday, the head of Germany's domestic intelligence agency Hans-Georg Maassen said Islamic State was using the wave of newcomers to infiltrate Europe.

He noted that European authorities have "seen repeatedly that terrorists are being smuggled in, camouflaged as refugees". At least two of the Paris attackers took the migrant route into Europe.

At the same time, Lebanese Australians have expressed fury over last week's leaked federal government document, marked as "Sensitive: Cabinet", that singled them out as prone to extremism.

The document cited links between terrorist attacks on Australian soil and our humanitarian intake, pointing to the Martin Place terrorist Man Haron Monis, Parramatta police shooter Farhad Jabar​ and the Melbourne knife attack by Abdul Haider as examples: all were either refugees or dependents of recent migrants.

The draft cabinet document stated that our "extremism landscape" has been significantly influenced by Lebanese people who came under the humanitarian program between 1975 and 1990, and subsequent family migration.

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The Lebanese Muslim Association condemned the assessment, saying it undermined efforts to maintain social cohesion by vilifying Muslim communities.

We need, however, to put these complaints into a bigger national security picture. Racial profiling relates to the targeting of an individual, by authorities, based solely on their personal characteristics: race, ethnicity, national origin and religion.

There's no scientific evidence to support linking race or ethnicity with criminality. That's why Australia's border security agencies don't single out members of particular minorities as suspect travellers.

But our border agencies do use groupings of behaviours and traveller characteristics to create profiles of high-risk travellers before and at our border.

The purpose of these frameworks is to allow the efficient allocation of Australian Border Force resources to the targeted management of specific national security and crime risks, not particular passenger groups.

The Canada Border Services Agency calls this scenario-based targeting. In the last three months of 2015 it led to more than 2300 passengers receiving extra attention from its border officers.

Just because behavioural or scenario-based targeting frameworks aren't categorically profiling doesn't mean they're not discriminatory in nature.

But in a high-volume high-threat environment it's one of the few strategies available to border agencies that's got a chance of success: we can't afford to waste the resources of our national security agencies on random sampling.

If you happen to be one of those 2300, however, and you feel targeted for your ethnicity this can be understandably objectionable, especially if it leads to a humiliating experience.

Profiling needs to be applied on the basis of logic, not fear: it can be an effective tool that shouldn't just be dismissed. But when the community sees or learn about profiling by our border, policing and security agencies it will affect public attitudes towards and treatment of minorities.

Members of our Muslim communities, for example, who feel unfairly targeted may stop co-operating with law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

These objections deserve careful consideration: we wouldn't want to undertake profiling in a heavy-handed way that produces an "us-and-them" mentality.

Canada's Privacy Commissioner is leading the charge for greater transparency, calling for greater explanations of his nation's targeting framework and the development of privacy safeguards.

In Australia our police and border agencies claim that they don't use racial profiles. But we need to further examine the case for some kind of independent review of the application of behaviour-based targeting to ensure that there's a risk-based logic to its application.

Public disclosure of targeting and risk-management models isn't possible for reasons of national security. It would create a "how-to manual" for criminals and terrorists.

But there's room for these profiles to be periodically subjected to external review by an organisation such as the Australian Human Rights Commission.

This may allay fears that ethnic profiling is being abused in our efforts to safeguard Australia from terrorism and crime.

John Coyne is head, border security program, Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Anthony Bergin is deputy director at ASPI.

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