Outstanding!: March 2007 Archives


March 27, 2007

One of the innovative new homeland security programs to prevent terrorism is the Office of Foreign Asset Control's Special Designated Nationals List (warning: long). Unfortunately, like the No Fly List, it appears to not be quite as specific as one would like:
Tom Kubbany is neither a terrorist nor a drug trafficker, has average credit and has owned homes in the past, so the Northern California mental-health worker was baffled when his mortgage broker said lenders were not interested in him. Reviewing his loan file, he discovered something shocking. At the top of his credit report was an OFAC alert provided by credit bureau TransUnion that showed that his middle name, Hassan, is an alias for Ali Saddam Hussein, purportedly a "son of Saddam Hussein."

The record is not clear on whether Ali Saddam Hussein was a Hussein offspring, but the OFAC list stated he was born in 1980 or 1983. Kubbany was born in Detroit in 1949.

Under OFAC guidance, the date discrepancy signals a false match. Still, Kubbany said, the broker decided not to proceed. "She just talked with a bunch of lenders over the phone and they said, 'No,' " he said. "So we said, 'The heck with it. We'll just go somewhere else.' "


Saad Ali Muhammad is an African American who was born in Chicago, Illinois, and converted to Islam in 1980. When he tried to buy a used car from a Chevrolet dealership three years ago, a salesman ran his credit report and at the top saw a reference to "OFAC search," followed by the names of terrorists including Osama bin Laden. The only apparent connection was the name Muhammad. The credit report, also by TransUnion, did not explain what OFAC was or what the credit report user should do with the information. Muhammad wrote to TransUnion and filed a complaint with a state human rights agency, but the alert remains on his report, said Sinnar.

There's an inherent tension in any blacklist mechanism in that it's very susceptible to false negatives, both because the databases are inherently messy and because you don't want some terrorist bypassing your carefully (or not so carefully) gathered blacklist by spelling his name "Osama bin Liden". But the fuzzier the matching the more likely it is that some poor loser gets branded a terrorist. Obviously, any testing procedure has this problem, but since the inherent accuracy of blacklists is so low, you basically have to choose between two unappealing alternatives. And since the penalties for doing business with someone on the prohibited list are so severe (up to $10 million and 10-30 years in prison!) it's unsurprising that financial institutions err on the side of caution.

I do wonder whether Hector Garcia-Molina has any trouble here...

"JOHN 40" (a.k.a. GARCIA MOLINA, Gener; a.k.a. "GUTIERREZ, Jhon";
a.k.a. "HERNANDEZ, John"; a.k.a. "JHON 40"; a.k.a. "JOHNNY 40");
DOB 23 Aug 1963; POB San Martin, Meta, Colombia; Cedula No.
17353242 (Colombia) (individual) [SDNTK]

I'm also glad I'm not named "Mike":

"MIKE" (a.k.a. RODRIGUEZ OREJUELA, Miguel Angel; a.k.a. "DOCTOR
M.R.O."; a.k.a. "EL SENOR"; a.k.a. "MANOLO"; a.k.a. "MANUEL";
a.k.a. "MAURO"; a.k.a. "PAT"; a.k.a. "PATRICIA"; a.k.a. "PATRICIO";
a.k.a. "PATTY"), Casa No. 19, Avenida Lago, Ciudad Jardin, Cali,
Colombia; DOB 23 Nov 43; alt. DOB 15 Aug 43; Cedula No. 6095803
(Colombia) (individual) [SDNT]