Terrorist watchlist riddled with errors

A Justice Department audit of the government’s master list of known and suspected terrorists found errors and inconsistencies which would have allowed terrorists to enter the country undetected and would mistakenly identify innocent Americans as terrorists.

The Terrorist Screening Database, maintained by the Terrorist Screening Center, contains over 700,000 records (and growing fast) submitted by the FBI, CIA and other intelligence agencies, and exports its data to other government databases, such as those used by the State Department to screen visa applications, and for the Transportation Security Agency’s no-fly and selectee lists.

But according to the audit, (PDF) conducted by inspector general Glenn A. Fine, the database “continues to have significant weaknesses,” he told Congress.

Depending on the requirements of the agency in question, the TSDB exports different sets of names to various government databases. An in-depth audit of one of those, the TSA’s no-fly list, found that the list should be cut in half.

Part of the problem is that the TSDB consists of two distinct databases which are supposed to be synchronized with exactly the same information, in order to facilitate exporting the data to different government agencies, but the auditors found that the two databases did not always remain in sync.

The auditors reviewed the TSC’s quality assurance protocols and found that of 105 records reviewed for quality assurance, 38 percent had errors or inconsistencies that the quality assurance process did not discover.

The audit reviewed complaints, finding that it usually took more than two months to resolve complaints, and that some remained open for more than a year.

In addition, the auditors found that 20 names of known and suspected terrorists were not being exported from the system so that front-line agents with Customs and Border Protection could prevent them from entering the country.

“For technical reasons, about 20 identities or records did not get distributed as completely as they should have,” [TSC director Leonard ] Boyle said in an interview. The CBP can access the crime center data, Boyle said, but the FBI did not send the watch list data directly to CBP systems “as they should have been.” — Associated Press

Finally, the audit found 2,682 records which were not being exported to any other database, and after reviewing them, found that 2,118 of them did not belong on any government watch list at all and should be removed.

“The new report confirms a widespread impression that the watch-list system still needs work,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy. “Not only are too many innocent people being listed in error, some of the bad guys are not properly included.” — Washington Post

And the problems just go on and on.

Additional problems with the TSC’s technology that the auditors identified included:

  • Cumbersome FBI data handling practices that create unnecessary errors, anomalies and inconsistencies in the records;
  • The FBI practice of entering data about suspected terrorists into a downstream database, which prevents other agencies from reviewing the bureau’s data;
  • Needless delays in entering data into the terrorist watch list, which cause a significant vulnerability to the integrity of the consolidated database;
  • Duplicate information problems with 6,262 records in the TSDB;
  • Delays in resolving data quality assurance problems that ranged up to 329 days, with an average processing time of 80 days (as of February 2007, TSC officials were working with 3,000 open quality assurance problems); and
  • Delays and inefficiencies in handling requests by specific people for correction or deletion of their watch list records.

Government Computer News

Don’t you just love how the government has turned a simple idea, maintaining a watchlist of known and suspected terrorists, and made a complete bureaucratic nightmare out of it? Do you feel safer now?

“Inaccurate, incomplete and obsolete watchlist information can increase the risk of not identifying known or suspected terrorists,” Fine said, “and it can also increase the risk that innocent persons will be stopped or detained.”

And if you’re one of those innocent Americans mistakenly watchlisted, good luck getting off the list. It gets checked by every police officer who asks you for your driver license. The next time you’re stopped for speeding, and the next thing you know your car is surrounded by cops pointing guns at you for no good reason, now you know who to blame.

One thought on “Terrorist watchlist riddled with errors

  • October 15, 2007 at 7:59 pm

    ‘t was real fun reading some of your comments. I want to say two things. 1. it’s very surprising to see some of you would go on each other’s throat even though you don’t know each other at all, and 2. the system is in place and rolling and there is NOTHING and NOBODY who can ever stop the system anymore. Not even a revolution what some of you are suggesting. The only people you can care about is your families and yourself and that’s the bottom line.

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