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The FBI's Watch Lists Are Plagued by Human Error and Data Overload

The FBI's Watch Lists Are Plagued by Human Error and Data Overload

If you visit certain websites, or associate yourself with an unsavory group of people, you run the chance of being added to one of the US government's many watch lists. In the interest of national security, they are used to monitor, and if necessary stop, the movements of “known or suspected terrorists.”
But due to amateur errors and the database's sheer size, these lists are allowing dangerous individuals to slip through, and prohibiting innocent people from flying. Two recent cases show just how fallible these lists are: With humans trying to deal with mountains of information, grave mistakes are being made.
First off, these monitoring systems aren't always effective at protecting the US from terrorist threats. Despite repeated warnings from the Russian government about his recent radicalisation, the activities of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the two brothers responsible for the April 2013 Boston Bombing, somehow didn't raise alarm bells when he was traveling between the US and Dagestan for jihadi training. Tsarnaev was included on a watch list, but because his last name had been misspelled in a security database, he reentered the country undetected.
On the other end of the spectrum, other people are prevented from traveling on erroneous grounds. Dr. Rahinah Ibrahim, a Malaysian citizen and Stanford PhD student, was stopped when she tried to return to the US in December 2005. She was handcuffed, detained for two hours, and then questioned. After some confusion, it was revealed she had been put on the secret No Fly List by mistake, and she was then told that she had been removed from it. However, shortly after her visa was revoked and she was denied from reentering the US, making travel to her “second home” impossible.
The agent responsible “erroneously nominated” Ibrahim for the list back in 2004, after he ticked the “wrong boxes”, “filling out the form exactly the opposite way from the instructions on the form,” judge William Alsup wrote.
After a seven-year legal battle, shrouded in secrecy by repeated claims from US officials that the case should be dismissed, Ibrahim was finally removed from the No Fly List. This week, the Department of Justice said it wouldn't appeal the ruling.
But it wasn't easy. Information about the case against Ibrahim remained classified and was kept from her, including whether or not she was on the No Fly List at all. It was a lengthy, laborious exchange between the US government and Ibrahim's lawyers.
The eventual ruling in Ibrahim’s case, however, isn't necessarily a sign of a shifting trend. She is the first person to successfully challenge their placement on a watch list, and with the case being closed to public scrutiny, it is unclear how others may clear their name. Those who might have been placed on one by mistake can only find out by attempting to board a flight and being denied, and as Ibrahim discovered, even then it is likely that any attempt at dialogue with the US government would result in them neither confirming nor denying whether you were placed on a list. It’s a kafkaesque system with no transparent way even to confirm your position, never mind challenge it.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, this opacity means that “innocent people can languish on the watchlists indefinitely, without real recourse.” 
“The impact on a citizen who cannot use a commercial aircraft is profound,” Judge Trenga said in relation to another case. “Placement on the No Fly List is defining and life restricting across a range of constitutionally protected activities and aspirations. […] A No Fly List designation transforms a person into a second class citizen, or worse.”
Members of civil liberties groups are also worried about the future of these lists. One of them is Ben Wizner, an attorney who is currently working with Edward Snowden:
“We already have watch lists that say that some people can fly and some people can’t, or that they can go in this lane or they can go in that lane,” he told Ars Technica. “But that’s only going to proliferate as there’s more and more data and faster and faster computers and more confidence that they can make these predictions about us.”
In 2012, 875,000 “known or suspected terrorists” were included on US watch lists, and 1,600 additional names were, at the time, nominated to be added every day so the FBI could keep tabs on them.
Despite what some people may say about the US requiring greater surveillance mechanisms to prevent another 9/11—even though such programmes were completely ineffective at thwarting the Boston plot—these two cases show that some serious problems with the watch list system exist, both for stopping terrorists and ensuring that innocent people aren't stopped from living their lives normally.  
TOPICS: privacyNo Fly Listboston bombingTamerlan TsarnaevpowerFBIwatch listssurveillance


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