Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Are you a terrorist? No? Well, this list says something else.

Some times you come across some stories that each seem disturbing, but when you put them together, are much more so. Well, here is a good example of this.

On March 25th, Washinton Post brought a story Terror Database Has Quadrupled In Four Years

Each day, thousands of pieces of intelligence information from around the world -- field reports, captured documents, news from foreign allies and sometimes idle gossip -- arrive in a computer-filled office in McLean, where analysts feed them into the nation's central list of terrorists and terrorism suspects.

Called TIDE, for Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, the list is a storehouse for data about individuals that the intelligence community believes might harm the United States. It is the wellspring for watch lists distributed to airlines, law enforcement, border posts and U.S. consulates, created to close one of the key intelligence gaps revealed after Sept. 11, 2001: the failure of federal agencies to share what they knew about al-Qaeda operatives.


This doesn't sound too bad until you realize that the list has gone from 100,000 to 435,000 files since 2003, giving the people in charge of it a huge extra workload, and there are a huge potential for mixups.

And then there is this sentence from the article:
The bar for inclusion is low, and once someone is on the list, it is virtually impossible to get off it.


Now, on the March 27th, Washington Post brought another article Ordinary Customers Flagged as Terrorists

Private businesses such as rental and mortgage companies and car dealers are checking the names of customers against a list of suspected terrorists and drug traffickers made publicly available by the Treasury Department, sometimes denying services to ordinary people whose names are similar to those on the list.

The Office of Foreign Asset Control's list of "specially designated nationals" has long been used by banks and other financial institutions to block financial transactions of drug dealers and other criminals. But an executive order issued by President Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has expanded the list and its consequences in unforeseen ways. Businesses have used it to screen applicants for home and car loans, apartments and even exercise equipment, according to interviews and a report by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area to be issued today.


So, not only is the number of people on the list growing, the list is being used for purposes it was not intended.
And you thought identity theft was bad, how about getting pegged with a terrorist suspect's identity?

The lawyers' committee has documented at least a dozen cases in which U.S. customers have had transactions denied or delayed because their names were a partial match with a name on the list, which runs more than 250 pages and includes 3,300 groups and individuals.


Why do companies risk turning away business? Well, there are some pretty sound reasons for that

Yet anyone who does business with a person or group on the list risks penalties of up to $10 million and 10 to 30 years in prison, a powerful incentive for businesses to comply. The law's scope is so broad and guidance so limited that some businesses would rather deny a transaction than risk criminal penalties, the report finds.


The article also have a few examples of people suffering from having names that appear on the list. Not necessarily the same full name, but rather sharing common names like Hassan and Hussein with them.

It is obvious that this system is broken. How should it be fixed? Well, first of all, I would say that there should be made a procedure for getting off the list. Second of all, the list should only apply to security related issues (airport flights, buying weapons etc.). Third of all, there should be some kind of penalty for companies that link individuals to the list without proper evidence - sharing a middle name with one of people on the list, but having wastly different dates of birth, would not be proper evidence.
Oh, and hire more people to maintain the list. Ensuring the data quality.

If you want to see if your name appears on the list, it can be found here: OFAC list (warning, fairly large .txt file).


Related to this in a way, is the SF Chronicle article from February 23rd: Going to Canada? Check your past - Tourists with minor criminal records turned back at border

This is largely a result of more data exchange between the US and Canada, and I have less problems with this (though I certainly find the Canadian stance unnecessary harsh), since there are clear rules about who can and cannot get into the country.

Still, makes me happy that Danish law mandates that minor crimes get scrubbed from your record after five years.

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