The perils of profiling

It raises issues that bear consideration in the evolving internet environment in Pakistan

Editorial February 10, 2018

The term ‘profiling’ has been around since 1980 and is widely used today often with little understanding of its precise meaning. It can be both relatively harmless — predicting consumer behaviour — or deeply concerning as in instances where is used to identify target groups through religious or racial characteristics. For civil rights groups everywhere it has become a hot-button issue as ‘profiling’ is increasingly used by law-enforcement agencies and intelligence services. With the ubiquity of the internet and the ever-increasing sophistication of tools that access it and analyse content those concerns are entirely justified. It is unknown to what extent, if any, profiling is used by LEAs in Pakistan but it must be assumed that if they are not currently profiling then they will be in the future.

A recent instance in the US is a case in point. The Boston Police Department has been using a commercially available filter in order to profile Muslims in order, they say, to identify potential threats. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has also revealed that Facebook updates made by personal accounts was also being tracked which should come as no surprise given the public nature of the platform and the freedoms of speech it provides. The ACLU also claimed that the data mining efforts of the LEAs and specifically the use of a programme called ‘Geofeedia’ were not serving the public interest and had unfairly focused on the Muslim community. The LEAs disputed this as might be expected but are no longer using Geofeedia.

Although this might appear to be an inconsequential footnote, it raises issues that bear consideration in the evolving internet environment in Pakistan, particularly considering how such tools may be used to profile particular religious groups and their affiliation. The LEAs tend to be quick learners, and the Boston experience will not have escaped their notice.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 10th, 2018.

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