Since 2003, the government has been building, testing and using the Terrorist Screening Database, stitching together several disparate terrorist lists from various agencies into one vast, centralized database that is a single consolidated watch list of suspicious individuals. Information in the TSDB can be used to decide whether individuals will be allowed to enter the country, get on an airplane, become citizens, or if they will be detained at routine traffic stops. It?s a central factor in other programs, like Secure Flight, the Transportation Security Administration?s proposed plan to ?screen? millions of travelers.
This week, EFF filed comments on some proposed changes to the Terrorist Screening Records System, which includes the watch list as well as other records. EFF urged the FBI to reconsider its 2005 decision to exempt the TSRS from crucial Privacy Act requirements, which makes it impossible for citizens to use the courts to access or challenge false or inaccurate data that may have found its way into the system. (In place of Privacy Act provisions, the FBI substitutes its own complaint system ? which follows no timelines and has no independent oversight or accountability.)
False and inaccurate data is a well-documented problem for the TSRS. For instance, in 2005, the Department of Justice?s own inspector general found that the watch list had major data accuracy flaws. And last month, the DOJ?s IG again issued a damning assessment of the system, finding that it had a substantial error rate, suffered from incomplete and inaccurate information, and noting that the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC), which runs the list, was slow to respond to citizen complaints.
In a sample of 105 records, 38 percent were found to have inconsistencies and inaccurate information. Even more disturbing is the fact that, as the Washington Post notes, ?nearly half the initial name matches proved worthless.? And the TSC?s slow response time means that innocent travelers who happen to find themselves caught in that margin of error would have to wait months to have problems addressed.
The problems with the watch list show that the Privacy Act is as necessary now as ever. Citizens must have an enforceable right to access data collected about them, and to correct that data. And if watch lists are going to be compiled, the TSC needs to have reliable systems in place to assure accuracy and completeness of information. Without these reforms, problems with misidentification and wrongful inclusion on the watch list are likely to continue.