Counter-Terrorism: Watch Lists Gone Wild


June 19,2008: A growing problem in the counter-terrorism community is dirty data. That is, information on suspects, or potential terrorists, that is wrong, or unreliable. "Watch lists" (of terrorism suspects) have long been a problem for air travelers, as names are easier to put on the list, than to get off. And a growing percentage of those names are of innocent people. This not only causes extra work for security personnel, but is bad PR for the counter-terror effort.

There are also databases of people who are seen, for one reason or another, to be "security threats". The people who created the criteria for putting people on the list did not think through how this would work, and are reluctant to change anything. For example, it was recently discovered that foreign graduate students at MIT were classified as "security threats" simply because they followed the rules. These students, who belong to an oceanographic studies program, have to get a special ID card in order to move about in U.S. ports, where the oceanographic survey ships they spend a lot of time on, are docked. The U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) security watch list was programmed to refuse foreigners with student visas, who applied for this ID card, and also tag them "security threats". The students applied for the cards at the request of the Coast Guard. The TSA has refused to correct the situation, which is typically how inept bureaucracies react to their errors.


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