The U.S. Terrorist Database

Bruce Schneier

Interesting article about the terrorist database: Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE).

It’s huge:

Ballooning from fewer than 100,000 files in 2003 to about 435,000, the growing database threatens to overwhelm the people who manage it. “The single biggest worry that I have is long-term quality control,” said Russ Travers, in charge of TIDE at the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean. “Where am I going to be, where is my successor going to be, five years down the road?”TIDE has also created concerns about secrecy, errors and privacy. The list marks the first time foreigners and U.S. citizens are combined in an intelligence database. The bar for inclusion is low, and once someone is on the list, it is virtually impossible to get off it. At any stage, the process can lead to “horror stories” of mixed-up names and unconfirmed information, Travers acknowledged.

Mostly the article tells you things you already know: the list is riddled with errors, and there’s no defined process for getting on or off the list. But the most surreal quote is at the end, from Rick Kopel, the center’s acting director:

The center came in for ridicule last year when CBS’s “60 Minutes” noted that 14 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were listed — five years after their deaths. Kopel defended the listings, saying that “we know for a fact that these people will use names that they believe we are not going to list because they’re out of circulation — either because they’re dead or incarcerated. . . . It’s not willy-nilly. Every name on the list, there’s a reason that it’s on there.”

Get that? There’s someone who deliberately puts wrong names on the list because they think the terrorists might use aliases, and they want to catch them. Given that reasoning, wouldn’t you want to put the entire phone book on the list?