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The U.S.'s Net Wide For 'Terrorist' Names 223

Yesterday's report of name-based blocking of money transfers as a result of U.S. Treasury policies intended to reduce the flow of money to Middle Eastern terrorists drew more than 800 comments. Western Union money transfers were at the heart of the linked Associated Press article, but as some of these comments point out, that's not the only case of interference in electronic financial transactions based on the names of the participants, akin to the use of the much-derided no-fly list. Read on for the Backslash summary of the conversation.

Several readers concentrated not just on the undesirability of government snooping on money transfers in the first place, but on the unintended but likely side-effects of heavy-handed government oversight of conventional money-transfer methods; as the AP article explained, there are ways to route around large-scale commercial services like Western Union, including informal networks called "hundis" or "hawalas." Reader quantaman calls increased control on conventional money-transfer services "worse than useless," writing:

"From what I can gather from the article this policy is actually harming security.

... If law abiding people are avoiding official institutions what makes them think that terrorists are stupid enough to use them?

More than that, by driving additional people to the hawalas it circumvents existing security measures. For starters, it means that more money (even the legit stuff) is moving around and they have no idea where it went. Also the additional people using the hawalas will mean they are more developed for the terrorists [to] use them. Additionally, when you uncover a hawala network it will be that much harder to pick out the terrorists, since you've added all these false positives. And finally, for the terrorists who would have used official institutions in the past since it was easy and the hawalas weren't developed, now you no longer have a money trail you can inspect later on.

All this security measure does is inconvenience and alientate a whole bunch of people while making the world a little less safe."

No matter how legitimate the ends to which it will be put, high-handed interference with the transfer of money isn't popular for other reasons, too. Reader ColourlessGreenIdeas writes "I know of a charity that works with (mostly Christian) organisations in the West Bank. Their usual way of getting money to their partners is to fly into Israel with a big bundle of money. Otherwise it tends to get massively delayed by U.S. banks."

(And at least one reader points out reason to suspect that Western Union in particular might have been willing to turn over information on its customers even in the absence of Treasury regulations.)

The Treasury regulations on which the name-filtering is based are clearly imperfect, but not quite as simplistic as certain comments painted them. Responding to the claim in the AP article that "Western Union prevented [taxi driver Abdul Rahman Maruthayil] from sending $120 to a friend at home last month because the recipient's name was Mohammed," reader lecithin says "Not true. They prevented him from sending the cash because his name was Sahir Mohammed. A bit of a difference. Perhaps a Sahir Mohammed has some links to 'bad guys'? Well, it happens here in the U.S. too. There are plenty of stories regarding people being put on the 'do not fly' list due to circumstances like this as well."

Reader bwcarty, too, calls "FUD" on claims that the list is indiscriminant or exclusively targets those with Arab names, writing "I work for a division of a large financial firm, and we are required to download a list of Specially Designated Nationals from the Treasury Department and compare names from it against new accounts and transfers. The list includes lists of suspected terrorists, and they're not all Arabic (think Irish Republican Army)."

Reader rhsanborn offers a similar account of the regulations and why they affect one-time transfers so significantly:
"... They aren't blocking people because they have some generic Arab name. They are blocking people who have names that match the Federal list of suspected terrorists. As someone mentioned above, something like Sahir Mohammed. Probably a perfect match for the list.

We too have to run periodic checks against the names in that database. If a match comes up, we have people individually check other information to confirm that it is an actual match (e.g. same name, different birthday).

We have open accounts with these people though, so we have a significant amount of time to deal with these. Western Union has a very short period of time because it is a one time transaction that happens relatively quickly."

Several readers related personal experience with the no-fly list, and a few pointed out some of its better-known shortcomings, such as a Soundex-based name database which has the potential to needlessly flag passengers like Senator Ted Kennedy and the former Sex Pistol Johnny Lydon (though as dan828 points out, Lydon has never actually been stopped because of the list).

Many readers denounced as racist the use of common Arab names to justify interference in money transfers. One response to that claim comes from reader mrxak, who offers a more innocuous explanation, namely imperfect information and a limited pool of names, which will inevitably contain variations of commonly used names. Such a system, he argues, is therefore based on pragmatism — not necessarily racism." Arguing that a similar system would pose just as much risk for "John Smiths" on the list as for those with Arab names, mrxak concedes the need for "a better system," and asks "but what kind of system would work?"

To this, reader eln had a ready answer: "Maybe a system where you gather a little more information about suspected terrorists other than their name before throwing them on some sort of list that prevents anyone with that name from doing all sorts of normal tasks. ... [O]f all of the pieces of information that can be used to identify a person, his name is probably the one that's most easily falsified. So, instead of doing some actual police work and gathering some actual evidence against an actual person, we decide to cast a wide net, and end up catching a lot of innocent people while actually decreasing our chances of catching the actual bad guy."

Jah-Wren Ryel's answer to the same question is more radical -- Ryel suggests that perhaps "none at all" is the best approach. He asks "What makes you think that any system could work?" Rather than spending money on elaborate surveillance or other intelligence-gathering efforts, Ryel says, "spend it on emergency services instead. ... No matter how many tax dollars you throw at the problem, terrorism is a tactic that can not be fully countered." Rather than concentrating on the prevention of terrorist acts, he argues, the most intelligent use of resources is on "the infrastructure that minimizes the damage. Better hospitals, better fire departments, better 'first responder' teams. That way, we get the benefit of the money spent regardless of if a terrorist blows up a building or an earthquake knocks it down."

The Israeli response to recurring attacks illustrates that these approaches may be in large part reconcilable; infrastructure improvements and intelligence gathering can certainly coexist, details of their implementation aside. The effectiveness of the pre-emptive side of any nation's approach to minimizing terrorist attacks, though, is slightly different from its approach to "fighting terror" in a broad sense.

On that note, reader karlandtanya describes measures such as the U.S. policies subjecting what might otherwise be private financial transactions to automated scrutiny as "effective, but still unfair," categorizing the use of name-based interference as what Bruce Schneier has described as "security theater." Karlandtanya writes, cynically, that in reaction to perceived security threats, "we present the appearance of security measures. Going overboard and causing outrage is just part of the salesmanship." To combat terror in a literal sense, he writes, "[t]he solution is, of course, the perception of security."

Thanks to all the readers whose comments informed the conversation, in particular to those whose comments are quoted above.
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The U.S.'s Net Wide For 'Terrorist' Names

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  • by lecithin ( 745575 ) on Friday July 07, 2006 @03:46PM (#15678673)
    Perhaps a person could change your name to something AMERICAN like McVeigh, Nichols or even Kaczynski. That should keep the feds off your back, right?

    Yes, this was supposed to be sarcastic.

    BTW - WTF is a name that a terrorist wouldn't use?
    • by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 07, 2006 @03:48PM (#15678688)
      BTW - WTF is a name that a terrorist wouldn't use?

      Taco. Can't picture a terrorist named Taco.
    • by linvir ( 970218 ) * on Friday July 07, 2006 @03:58PM (#15678787)
      BTW - WTF is a name that a terrorist wouldn't use?
      Osama bin Laden
    • by everphilski ( 877346 ) on Friday July 07, 2006 @04:04PM (#15678827) Journal
      BTW - WTF is a name that a terrorist wouldn't use?

      John Wayne! []
    • BTW - WTF is a name that a terrorist wouldn't use? - Mohammed Terrorist would be one of those I believe.
    • The Holland Tunnel conspirator's name is Assem Hammoud []. Not exactly Joe Smith is it?

      • The Holland Tunnel conspirator's name is Assem Hammoud. Not exactly Joe Smith is it?

        And the airline shoebomber guy's name is Richard Reid. His name isn't Joe Smith, either, but it certainly wouldn't trip their name filters. Neither would John Walker Lindh. Nor would anyone from Xinjiang province if they were recruited.

    • by Hoi Polloi ( 522990 ) on Friday July 07, 2006 @05:01PM (#15679280) Journal
      Suddenly, cab drivers across NYC change their name to George Bush
    • I think Tom Anderson or John smith would be excellent names for Muslim children.
      A partial problem with these text filters is there are potentailly millions of people with the same name or variants there of. Especially in the islamic speaking world given the popularity of using names from thier religion.

      Might as well filter out anderson in the midwest and risso in new york.
      Gauronteed to get at least 1 bad guy if you do that.
  • Quick! (Score:4, Funny)

    by CommunistHamster ( 949406 ) <> on Friday July 07, 2006 @03:49PM (#15678697)
    Everyone, change your names by deedpoll to "Jihad al Zarqawi al Hussein bin Laden" !
  • My Experience (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 07, 2006 @03:55PM (#15678752)
    My experience with terrorists is limited to people named "Bush"...
    • My experience with terrorists is limited to people named "Bush"...

      If you can't P2P file share in anonymous comfort, I'll bet you can't be a true AC on Slashdot either. The FBI is undoubtedly on their way to your door right now.

      And just in time to be run over my Michael Moore racing up to sign you on to his organization.

      • And just in time to be run over my Michael Moore racing up to sign you on to his organization.

        Really, what does the Michael Moore reference add at this point. It's too played out to be funny, and it has no intellectual content.

        I mean, it's pretty sad when politicians still use this weak ass reply, but us non-politicians are supposed to be serious about the topic, or move on to something that is fresh and funny.

        At least upgrade your retort to be about Nancy Pelosi.
  • Spam Filtering (Score:4, Insightful)

    by shrapnull ( 780217 ) * on Friday July 07, 2006 @03:57PM (#15678771)
    The problem is they're trying to block terrorists like amateur sysadmins try to block spam.

    "If the message contains "Viagra" or "V1agra" or "V I A G R A" then block it."

    "If name contains "*/? Muhammad" then block it."

    Heuristics work much better. How soon before we create a "Terror Score" system akin to bayesian filter's "Spam Score"? It seems like similar mechanism at work here. ...but how exactly does one heuristically determine a persons 'terror score' without bio data?
    • Re:Spam Filtering (Score:2, Interesting)

      by botzi ( 673768 )
      >>.but how exactly does one heuristically determine a persons 'terror score' without bio data?

      So, we should be ready to provide bio data, place & date of birth and all that just to send 200 USD to a person on the other side of the world AND we should pretend the whole system is actually making our lives more secure?? Anybody who believes that money transfer control has anything to do with terrorrists needs a headcheck. Sure, criminals are not brilliant, but NOBODY is that dumb. As it has already b
      • Re:Spam Filtering (Score:3, Insightful)

        by shrapnull ( 780217 ) *
        I'm not arguing the legitimacy of them collecting the data, that point is always reprehensible. What I argue is *with* all of this data, why not create a scoring-based system that adds points for suspicion (say, frequent overseas travel +1, large purchase of chemicals +2, name listed in terror database +3, etc...) and once the score breaks the "terror threshold" mark that individual as a person of interest.

        Biology may not even need to come into the picture with perhaps the exception of highly-elusive felon
    • how exactly does one heuristically determine a persons 'terror score' without bio data?

      First you access the Diebold central database and check whether they voted for or against Dear Leader Bush...

  • by neophyte13 ( 707506 ) on Friday July 07, 2006 @04:01PM (#15678805) Journal
    It isn't like that could just use an intermediary like Pay-Pal.
  • by Kenja ( 541830 ) on Friday July 07, 2006 @04:42PM (#15679145)
    I'm reminded yet again of the movie Under Seige. A rather good film about terorists attacking new york and the governments over reaction to it.

    Anthony 'Hub' Hubbard: Come on General, you've lost men, I've lost men, but you - you, you *can't* do this! What, what if they don't even want the sheik, have you considered that? What if what they really want is for us to herd our children into stadiums like we're doing? And put soldiers on the street and have Americans looking over their shoulders? Bend the law, shred the Constitution just a little bit? Because if we torture him, General, we do that and everything we have fought, and bled, and died for is over. And they've won. They've already won!
    • How come I never seem to get mod points when there's a comment like that that truly deserves being modded up?
    • by BobSutan ( 467781 ) on Friday July 07, 2006 @05:29PM (#15679529)
      You're thinking of the movie The Siege [] which featured Denzel Washington and Bruce Willis.

      Under Siege [] was based on a Navy ship and featured Steven Seagal and Tommy Lee Jones.

      Aside from the correction of the films title I completely agree with you. If anyone would like to gain some perspective on America's current terrorism phobia and how NOT to deal with it, just check out The Siege. Its time for a gut-check America.
    • You are correct sir. The terrorists have won. Iraq, Patriot Act, Bush reelected, brought back torture, brought down the constitution (Guantanamo, read Amendments to the constitution 5 and 6), budget through the roof, ... I could go on and on. They have been so successful AND escaped justice. That is quite an accomplishment I would say.

      I don't know if those were the original goals, but if their goal was to weaken the US and their democratic system and values...
    • by dbIII ( 701233 ) on Friday July 07, 2006 @07:47PM (#15680367)
      The World: How do you know Saddam is linked to Bin Laden?

      US Spooks: We kept drowning this guy here until he said so.

      That's right guys - the ravings of a drowing man which turned out to be wrong were given as the sole evidence of the link . This has pissed off a lot of other countries that were told to "trust us, we have evidence, we just can't tell you" who initially didn't suspect the reason they were told to trust and not given evidence is because the evidence was stupid and gathered in a way that the US is not supposed to act - so they can't trust any info coming out of the USA any more. Torture is the tool of third world dictatorships that want to tie a person to a crime, don't care how or who, and just want the signature of someone that sounds plausable on an already prepared statement. Bringing the methods of Saddam home is not the way to run a respected first world country.

      One famous incident was the guy in the early USSR who confessed under torture to blowing up more trains than actually existed in the country. People who carry it out knew that it is not a way to gather information - it is a way for the lazy and unscrupulous to meet their quota of crimes "solved" and a tool of terror.

  • Watch it on YouTube []. Seen on VideoSift [].
  • Typical /. post when it comes to privacy:

    "I don't want to goverment/corporate entity/whatever to know anything about me. I must have privacy at all costs."

    Typical /. response to this article:

    "What we need here is more information collected..."

    Hypocrits.... or rather another form of NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard).
  • by CanSpice ( 300894 ) on Friday July 07, 2006 @04:51PM (#15679210) Homepage
    Reader bwcarty, too, calls "FUD" on claims that the list is indiscriminant or exclusively targets those with Arab names, writing "I work for a division of a large financial firm, and we are required to download a list of Specially Designated Nationals from the Treasury Department and compare names from it against new accounts and transfers.

    I'm glad I come from good hearty Irish stock and my name won't be showing up on these lists.

    The list includes lists of suspected terrorists, and they're not all Arabic (think Irish Republican Army)."

  • Just get over it and move on. The government's supercomputers are going to snoop more and more of our formally "private" information. So will corporations, your neighbors, and your enemies.

    Personally, I really don't give a rat's butt if some government computer flags my phone conversation with my friend Mohammed in Pakistan, especially if the computer picks up our side conversations about money transfer and nuclear bombs. If I were to make such a phone call, should I be surprised if someone in the CIA
    • by Larus ( 983617 )
      It's politics as usual. An acquaintance who is half Iranian said once: if you ever want to transport anything in and out of Iran, you talk to the Kurds. If you ever want to transfer any funds in and out of Middle East, you talk to the Kurds. Do we see the government specifically target the Kurds in the route of trading? Heaven forbid. They are the oppressed ethnic group, and anything they do are justified. The name filtering is about as useful as airport screening - it shows the government is doing so
  • by orbitalia ( 470425 ) on Friday July 07, 2006 @05:29PM (#15679528) Homepage
    If you traceroute to, or, or a bunch of other high profile sites you will see they are actually being redirected to first. NSA Cable Tap anyone? is owned by savvis who have had many projects together with the NSA before.

    most backbone providers have a 'secret' NSA tap room..,70910-0.html []

    And you all sit idly by..
    • "And you all sit idly by"

      And what exactly are you doing about it? Timothy McVeigh didn't "sit idly by" and they executed him. So what would you recommend?

      • I would never advocate violence. I am trying to bring the issue to peoples attention at least, the more people aware of the issue the better. I don't live in the US, and I don't think a similar thing could happen in the county I live in..

        public awareness and opinion is a powerful tool..
  • As long as you're going to block money transfers anyway, why not block all transfers from the USA to Mexico? If illegal immigrants can't ship the money home they'll all leave. Or just put a 20% tax on the transfers to pay for the identity theft, services, and tax evasion that the illegals are practicing. This way they pay for their stay here, and become more welcome guests. Can't believe that our government that can't do anything else right either isn't doing this.

    Modding the truth as a troll is a mis

  • Dammit. I'm blocked! (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Frightening ( 976489 ) on Friday July 07, 2006 @06:17PM (#15679844) Homepage
    Hello there,

    My first name is Ahmed, and parts of my family name contain the word Hamza. Apparently, I'm an effing terrorist. Nice to meet you too. No, no, the pleasure is all mine.

    The problem with the list matching scheme is that although it is slightly more effective than unordered pattern matching with name derivations, it still sucks. Those of us who are terrorist have a nasty habit of

    a) Having perfectly normal/popular first & family names (Ahmed is like Dave, but more popular)
    b) Making up nicks to improve their boring names(e.g Abu-Mus'ab) so that they cover the entire range of human nomenclature.
    c) Not using wiring services under names that are on FBI wanted lists.

    So in the end, it's the good guys like me who end up getting screwed.
    I've always hated Western Union. Now I have a reason to blow them up, or send them hatemail. Or something. But they're already onto me. I know it.

    I probably won't get a chance to fi
  • Ideology (Score:4, Informative)

    by king-manic ( 409855 ) on Friday July 07, 2006 @06:51PM (#15680058)
    Ideologically speaking, the radical muslim sect want essentially what the radical christian conservatives want too. In light of that either the Radical christian right or the radical muslim faith dictating my foreign policy either through acts of terrorism or acts of US legislation is bad. My only hope is The US destroys all of radical islam but incurs so much debt they cease to be able to be a super power. The power brokers you guys put in charge are a scary lot of evil evil men. I can't beleive any sane populace would put such evil and incompetent crew in twice. It's like voting for massive debt, bad press, terrible foreign relations, and lack of internal security.
    • US ... incurs so much debt they cease to be able to be a super power.
      George hears you and is already on the job. Weapon sales overseas and a tax dodging Hollywood are not going to provide enough revenue to keep things running.
  • Here's how to prevent any further misuse of airplanes, trains, subways, buses, etc. Please ask yourself first: When was the last time I heard about an Israeli airliner in terrorist trouble?
    Here it is: Restore the right of the people to keep and bear arms. Not the "militia" (The National Guard is NOT a militia - it's part of the Federals we need a militia to protect ourselves from), but the people.
    Think about it - On 9/11, where was the biggest concentration of unarmed people in indefensible groups? Y
  • by digitalgimpus ( 468277 ) on Friday July 07, 2006 @08:42PM (#15680631) Homepage
    Ok, so when a transfer is done, the transfer amount is imediately deducted from the account it's sent from...

    And technically put in a temporary account, until it clears and hits the destination account.

    Now if the transfer is held, for "security" reasons... the amount of money in question still exists, and sits in a bank account...

    who gets the interest? Does the financial firm keep it? Do the feds steal it? Does it go to the origin account holder (even though interest isn't earned on that account)? Or to the destination (even though the interest wasn't collected on that account)?

    Remember, all these firms don't keep cash in a drawer in the back room... it's electronic transfers between bank accounts.

    Could I start one of these companies, delay random large transfers, and make profit off of the interest I keep on my bank account?

Perfection is acheived only on the point of collapse. - C. N. Parkinson