© St. Petersburg Times, published December 22, 2002
Americans love lists. Somehow, putting things down in enumerated fashion makes it appear that we have gotten to the nub of the problem, we are in control and getting somewhere.
We compile "to-do" lists and shopping lists. We list costs and benefits. The FBI has a 10 Most Wanted list. Even Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the disgraced Communist-hunter, had a list.
And right there is the downside of lists. While ignoring nuance and complexity, lists hold an implied authority that is too often undeserved.
The presidential election in 2000, which gave George Bush Florida's 25 electors by a margin of 537 ballots, might have come out differently had it not been for a really bad list. To determine who was disqualified from voting due to a former felony, most local election officials relied exclusively on a list compiled by Database Technologies Inc. The list turned out to be full of errors and, as a result, some Florida voters -- particularly black and Democratic voters -- were wrongly turned away on Electi on Day.
Whether we want it or not, each of us is on a good deal of lists: from what we buy with a "preferred customer card" at the grocery store to places we travel by airplane. Combine this with the deference given the information contained on lists, advancements in information technologies, and the "war" on terrorism, and Americans have a burgeoning problem that resembles Franz Kafka's worst nightmare. Government bureaucracy is tough enough to wade through when all you're trying to do is get a pothole fixed. Now the government is planning to use databases containing trillions of bits of unconfirmed information to make presumptions about who among us is dangerous.
How do you go about getting off such a "dataspects" list? Don't ask the government. Either it doesn't know or won't tell you.
Already, a watch list distributed by the FBI following Sept. 11 has proven to have a life of its own. The FBI admits that early versions listed people who had nothing to do with terrorism, but the agency says there is no way to control the damage. Businesses and trade associations have passed the list along so promiscuously that it can be found in company databases around the world. Innocent people who can't seem to remove their names from every permutation are having trouble flying and renting a car. And who knows how many people have been denied business or job opportunities. The Wall Street Journal reported that a water utilities trade association used the list to screen potential job applicants.
Then there is the "no-fly" list, utilized by the Transportation Security Administration, constructed with intelligence from a variety of national security agencies. It includes about 1,000 people who are considered a threat to aviation safety.
But what if you don't belong there?
A TSA spokesman said his agency has no authority to take names off the list. The TSA suggested contacting one's local FBI field office. In Tampa, Special Agent Sara Oates said you would need to know which agency put you on the list -- such as the CIA, the Federal Aviation Administration or a specific FBI office -- and contact them for a correction.
But that information is considered "sensitive," and it isn't being disclosed.
Federal screeners also use Computer-Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening System, or CAPPS, to determine who might be a security risk at airports. CAPPS is not a list of names but rather a set of criteria that raises red flags. (CAPPS-II is in the works and will greatly expand the number of databases searched.)
But what if your background happens to fit some suspicious profile? Like what happened to Jan Adams and Rebecca Gordon, journalist for War Times, a San Francisco-based antiwar magazine. In August the two were stopped as security risks as they tried to fly to Boston. They were eventually allowed to proceed but with a red "S" stamped on their boarding pass which meant searches at every stop.
These women have monitored elections in El Salvador and assisted antiapartheid activists in South Africa. They were told they were on the "no fly" list, but what if they were merely victims of a CAPPS algorithm by traveling to those places during those years? What if your travel background leads to heightened security procedures every time you fly? How can you correct the computer's inaccurate presumptions?
TSA spokesman Brian Turmail says his office doesn't know. He thinks there is a procedure but, "we don't deal with it." He suggested I call the TSA's legal department. I did, but no one returned my calls.
Turmail also said I might file a Freedom of Information Act request. But when the Electronic Privacy Information Center made a FOIA request for the procedures for getting one's name off the "no fly" list, the TSA ignored it. EPIC is now suing for the information.
The truth is, these lists are all but impossible to correct. Those who suffer hassles, harassment or worse by finding themselves on them will be in a kind of suspicion purgatory -- on lists that, like the Hotel California, you can never leave.