Any close encounters with the FBI terrorist watchlist?

tsc080105aJust before this summer the U.S. Department of Justice filed a report about the FBI Terrorist Watchlist. This watchtlist serves as a critical tool for screening and law enforcement personnel for alerting them when they come across a known or suspected terrorist. It is used by personnel at airports, harbours and the borderline. Also when you apply for a visum you are matched against this watchlist. The Terrorist Screening Center, a subsidiary of the FBI, is responsible for maintaining the watchlist.

This watchlist was created in 2004 from several other lists and at that time it consisted of about 68.000 entries. I use the word entries, because in the years after it became fuzzy if one record is the same as one individual. By the end of 2008 the list had grown to over 1,1 million entries. In 2008 after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) mentioned that the list had passed the 1 million, the government came with an explanation. Although we have recorded over 1 million entries in the database, the net result is that these records correspond to about 400.000 individuals. Terrorist often use different and thus multiple identities, use several (falsified) passports etc. But adding entries with only the first initials and last name, while an entry of the full first names and last name already exists will result in unwanted side-effects.

We all know, as being interested in data quality and identity resolution, that J. Robinson will result into much more matches (hits) than James Robinson. Indeed the number of found matches will sky-rocket and have to be evaluated manually. Might this be the reason, that we see more and more security personnel on airports?

In the latest audit report of the U.S. Department of Justice about this watchlist one other problem was analyzed. While extensive procedures were made for nominating and adding suspects to the watchlist, there is no procedure for removing people from the list. Based on a sample of almost 70.000 entries and investigation of the individuals an astounding number of 35% omissions was found. People who had died were still on the list, people who were no longer investigated upon, cases which had been closed etc. So this watchlist is growing and growing. Resulting in screening personnel who ensnare many innocent travelers as suspected terrorists. And wasting their time and divert their energies from looking for true terrorists. It seems to me that FBI and TSC can benefit from better Data Governance, what do you think?

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