Infants on the Terrorist Watch List

Imagine you're in charge of airport security. You have a watch list of terrorist names, and you're supposed to give anyone on that list extra scrutiny. One day someone shows up for a flight whose name is on that list. They're an infant.

What do you do?

If you have even the slightest bit of sense, you realize that an infant can't be a terrorist. So you let the infant through, knowing that it's a false alarm. But if you have no flexibility in your job, if you have to follow the rules regardless of how stupid they are, if you have no authority to make your own decisions, then you detain the baby.

EDITED TO ADD: I know what the article says about the TSA rules:

The Transportation Security Administration, which administers the lists, instructs airlines not to deny boarding to children under 12 -- or select them for extra security checks -- even if their names match those on a list.

Whether the rules are being followed or ignored is besides my point. The screener is detaining babies because he thinks that's what the rules require. He's not permitted to exercise his own common sense.

Security works best when well-trained people have the authority to make decisions, not when poorly-trained people are slaves to the rules (whether real or imaginary). Rules provide CYA security, but not security against terrorism.

Posted on August 19, 2005 at 8:03 AM • 37 Comments

Comments

JoeAugust 19, 2005 8:27 AM

Not much of a story here. The officials checked the list, detained an individual who appeared to be on it, did further review, found no problems and sent them on thier way. Looks like the system worked here. So ... what's the problem? Why do we have to nit-pick everything the USA does? Give us a break people, we are just trying to protect our citizens. If you don't like it, try to change it, or get out.

PaulAugust 19, 2005 8:37 AM

Yes, but what if, instead of being an infant, the person is 14 years old, as a family friend was? Apparently he shares a name with some columbian drug smuggler...

What if he's 17? At what age do they transition from the "that's funny, the system caught someone innocent" to the "we don't care, you're on the no-fly list so go away" stage?

paulAugust 19, 2005 8:38 AM

This is one of the places where the decision to scrap civil-service protections and other workers' rights for the TSA and the rest of Homeland Security may be coming home to roost. Knowing that you could be fired without recourse for exercising sensible discretion and initiative in technical violation of a rule dampens any desire that might exist to do anything except go exactly by the book.

GeorgeAugust 19, 2005 9:04 AM

Hey @Joe:

You're missing the point.

CNN thought is warranted a story. Actually, compared to Bruce's write-up, it seems CNN's article title is a bit oversweeping: "'No-fly' lists keep infants off planes." But you probably didn't even RTFA.

And more generally, the foolishness of the method of name-based 'no-fly' lists has been emphasized by Bruce and many others versus human common sense can't get any more clear than this example.

pdf23dsAugust 19, 2005 9:04 AM

According to the linked story, TSA policy is to not detain any passengers under the age of 12, no matter what their name is. The problem is that this policy wasn't followed in this instance.

RemyAugust 19, 2005 9:12 AM

@Joe:

Yeah, I'm sure America is very good at defending from Al-Qaeda's infant cells. And who needs smart policies anyway.

ZedAugust 19, 2005 9:13 AM

This list of names seems to really fall short. Surely we posses the technology to include some demographic information about the person on the list, not to mention a photo? I mean if the name is close, but is for a 35 yr. old man... you shouldn't have to pat down a baby with a similar name.

One has to imagine that it would not be hard for a terrorist to have papers in a different name. Bob Smith maybe.

RampoAugust 19, 2005 9:35 AM

Surely in a large country like the USA, there are many people with identical names?

xAugust 19, 2005 9:50 AM

Following the Bush line of evil and illogic, we should immediately kill all infants.

DarkFireAugust 19, 2005 9:53 AM

I feel it's salient to point out that in Israel there have been documented attempted suicide bombings by youngsters aged 13-16. The process of indoctrination *can* start at a shockingly early age... With disasrtous results.

But where do we draw the line? A difficult question. How long before a suicide bomber hides a device in amongst a baby's clothing or crib? Sick and evil though this may be, this won't stop the terrorists.

At the same time of course we need to maintain a sense of realism about these things, which is again an excellent argument IMO for having more *human* agents rather than some fancy but ultimately unresponsive computer system.

DavidAugust 19, 2005 10:06 AM

The Miami Herald did a story regarding this kind if thing a while back. Seems a businessman has the same name as a drug-dealer. This person has business interests in South and Central America and thus travels frequently. He carries a letter from the FBI among others stating that he is in fact *not* the person in question.

He routinely tells his associates (that fly with him) to not wait for him once they arrive. He us usually held for a number of hours and the letter and other documents are 'ignored' and he has to be proven to be someone else. He has ended up in jail at least once.

He seems to take it to heart, but it's crazy. Watch lists only go so far.

DLAugust 19, 2005 10:14 AM

Did you guys actaully read the article? It says...

"The Transportation Security Administration, which administers the lists, instructs airlines not to deny boarding to children under 12 -- or select them for extra security checks -- even if their names match those on a list."

The policy already establishes a cutoff age and it is not being followed. Your comments all seem to ignore this and miss the point.

DennisAugust 19, 2005 10:18 AM

"How long before a suicide bomber hides a device in amongst a baby's clothing or crib?"....the real question here is, how long until a terrorist hides a bomb in the clothing of a baby with the name of a terrorist? I'd bet on forever. Random baby-search might be worthwhile, but singling out babies based on their names is just silly.

DarkFireAugust 19, 2005 10:29 AM

@DL:

{SNIP]
The policy already establishes a cutoff age...
{SNIP}

Superb! Attention all Al-Qaeda operatives: you are only to recruit new members under the age of 12. Sounds totally arbitrary to me.

Again, this is why we need people on the ground rather than a damned computer program! That way the difficulty would not even be a problem in the first place.

Same goes for watch lists - how many *known* terrorists will be plain stupid enough to travel under their real names with an unchanged appeerance etc? None of those that are still free.

This is the point - the world of the terrorist is ruthlessly darwinian, and a computer programme / watch list is incapable of the necessary heuristics that are the *only* effective defence before the new intelligence regarding said terrorist becomes known and fed in to the CAPS or whatever.

If that makes sense...

fananaAugust 19, 2005 10:34 AM

The point is: if I'm the bad guy, am I really going to board any plane using my real identity? How many terrorists have been caught at an airport trying to fly into or outside the US since the no-fly list policy is followed? And how many honest citizens have been bothered instead?

jiistmeAugust 19, 2005 10:43 AM

@Joe

Please tell me how this is protecting our citizens. Tell me how this would help prevent a terrorist attack. How much of our rights to freedom and privacy does the government have to take away from us in the name of "prevent terrorist attacks" til you yourself get upset? If the government went that far, would you then immediately move out of the country? (That is what you are implying others should do.)

Bruce SchneierAugust 19, 2005 10:55 AM

I know what the article says about the TSA rules, that children under 12 should not be detained even if their name is on the watchlist.

Whether the rules are being followed or ignored is besides my point. The screener is detaining babies because he thinks that's what the rules require. He's not permitted to exercise his own common sense.

Security works best when well-trained people have the authority to make decisions, not when poorly-trained people are slaves to the rules (whether real or imaginary). Rules provide CYA security, but not security against terrorism.

jammitAugust 19, 2005 11:20 AM

The baby getting detained doesn't bother me (actually it does, but that's not the real issue for me here). It's the fact the security specialists are poorly trained. I worry more about the idiot with power and not the genious without power.

Muhammad KhanAugust 19, 2005 11:24 AM

Hi,

My name is Muhammad Khan and I am a frequently travel to Canada from US (I have family and friends there).

Leaving US to enter in Canada has never been a problem, but whenever I re-enter the country for some reason I am randomly selected for further insepction. Last time even the person handling my case at pearson international in canada recognized me (from my last visits) and said, we have instructions from HQ for ppl having specific names (and unfortunately your name matches that criterion).

I have heard about other cases where kids under 12 were stopped by screeners @ airport for further insepction. I think there is no 'immediate' resolution for the rampant paranoia ..... it is just a state of mind ... which tends to persist ...

GMAugust 19, 2005 12:40 PM

@Muhammad:

Poor you. I'll bet you're the victim of some stupid Homeland Security heuristic that says all terrorists are named Muhammad!

zipAugust 19, 2005 12:47 PM

Does anybody else see the potential for a 'denial of service' like attack because of the name based watch lists?
I mean, if the 'bad guys' start using common names for aliases (eg John Smith), at some point names on the list will match some non-trivial percent of the traveling population. Eventually, the number of people being detained will be greater then the number of TSA folk at a given airport...

ZwackAugust 19, 2005 1:52 PM

Greetings,
Yes, I have read the article. Yes it is the case that the TSA rules are not being followed.
But it makes no sense whatsoever. Babies should not be detained as adult terrorists (I am guessing that the age limit was chosen by TSA for a very good reason, like no 2 year old terrorists exist.)
If you read the article you will see that 89 children have asked to be removed from the no-fly list. 14 of those children are under 2. I don't know how many children haven't asked, but even if this is all of them this is not an isolated incident. 89 children have been stopped and subjected to extra scrutiny, they might even have been completely stopped from flying because they have the wrong name.
Given that you don't need to buy tickets for children under 2 (unless you want to guarantee them a seat) I would guess that there are more that would have been stopped than just those 14.
I feel so much safer about flying now that I know the child in the seat next to me is not a terrorist.
Z.

PaulAugust 19, 2005 2:13 PM

It strikes me that the wrong incentives exist for the TSA. At the moment, they do not suffer for inconveniencing innocent passengers.

The process is obviously inefficient.

What about privitising the administration of the no-fly list, and having competing organisations doing airport security - at least two at each airport.

A passenger who is chosen for deeper investigation gets $5 a minute every minute after being chosen, until being free to go.

The competing security organisations are given bonuses for speed and accuracy - measured by using 'mystery shoppers' - people deliberately put on the no-fly list to check the accuracy of the process.

The $5/minute given to the passenger being process gets taken out of the bonus.

That way, many, if not most people will be happy to be chosen (hey! free money) - and the security organisations are incentivised to improve the speed of processing and its accuracy.

C'mon - it's time for the home of capitalism to show how it's done!

Paul

Osama bin LaffinAugust 19, 2005 2:21 PM

@Zwack

>I feel so much safer about flying now that I know the child
>in the seat next to me is not a terrorist.

You don't know that.

All you know is that the child in the seat next to you doesn't have the SAME NAME as a terrorist.

The child could still BE a terrorist, but going under the name Jane Doe.

Or the adult on the other side of the child could BE a terrorist or drug smuggled, going under a name not on the list, using a child as cover.

AntonioAugust 19, 2005 11:37 PM

@Joe:
I don't kown if it was what you intended, but suggesting ppl to "get out" sounds a lot like a series of adds run on Brazillian media during 70s by a military dictatorship which had the phrase "Brazil, Love it or Leave it!".

It even sounds much better in English than in Portuguese, you may want to change it to something like "America, Love it or Leave it"!

RichAugust 20, 2005 8:57 AM

The 'Do Not Fly List' has a striking resemblence to the Florida 2000 'Do Not Vote List'. That is, based on nothing more than name.

JoeAugust 20, 2005 12:11 PM

I find it strange that infants are denied access to airplanes because they share a name with someone on a terrorist and yet the TSA is going to allow box cutters, knieves ect on planes. Where is the real "danger"?

SumDudeAugust 21, 2005 4:59 PM

Does this mean that the No-Fly-List will have to be opened to FOIA requests from parents concerned about giving their children the "wrong" name?

As for the business traveler frequently being stopped, I'd suggest to him (note to terrorists: do NOT do this, mmkay?) to get a legal name change. According to google, it cost this one dude $34 - ok, so you'll also need a new passport etc., but it should pay itself back rather swiftly. (A letter from the CIA should be enough reason for a judge to grant the change, methinks. Otherwise, emigrate to the UK, where you can change your name for no reason whatever, by deed poll).

gabuzoAugust 22, 2005 3:58 AM

A couple of remarks. First of all it does not surprise me that the screeners did not the regulation rule about the age limit. Training people is a long and expensive process so my guess is that many security companies keep it minimal.

Regarding terrorist groups recruiting 13 yrs old boys is not surprising but as those children have no history in terrorism they won't be on the no-fly list. Beside as I guess these children will be probably used for sucide operations they probably won't need to fly when they get into the no-fly list.

DennisAugust 22, 2005 12:48 PM

I think I just figured out the reason for the no-fly list based on names.

It's not because they think it'll actually prevent terrorism. It's because if terrorism occurs, and one of the terrorists was on the watchlist and boarded the plane using his real name, it'll be really, really embarrassing.

no_namesAugust 22, 2005 5:11 PM

@Dennis

"It's not because they think it'll actually prevent terrorism. It's because if terrorism occurs, and one of the terrorists was on the watchlist and boarded the plane using his real name, it'll be really, really embarrassing."

Ding-Ding-Ding-Ding-Ding... You hit the nail on the head!! CYA all the way!


GerdAugust 29, 2005 4:10 PM

Unfortunately the "I'm just following orders" problem is very common
and not limited to security. I recently could experience how it affected
personal safety:

On a flight from Reykjavik to Frankfurt with Iceland Air, we brought along
a car seat (Britax Marathon) for our daughter (20 months) to be safely
restrained during takeoff and landing.

The flight attendant checked out the seat to find a european approval-label.
Since she couldn't find it, she told us we were not allowed to have our
daughter sit in her car-seat during landing and takeoff,
but would be required to hold her in our arms.
She underlined how she was just following a rule she wouldn't be able to explain
nor understand herself.

Apparently, she did not have (or thought she did not have) the authority to
apply common sense to the situation:
How is a baby safer in my arms if force exceeds a level that requires a
seat belts to hold me in my seat?

And of course the author of this rule (or the one authorizing it) is never
available in such situations.

OisínSeptember 21, 2005 7:57 PM

> The Transportation Security Administration,
> which administers the lists, instructs airlines
> not to deny boarding to children under 12 -- or
> select them for extra security checks -- even if
> their names match those on a list.

This is even more stupid than forcing the screeners to blindly follow the rules to the point where they detained infants.

If they react by saying "okay, that's silly. No children may be detained or even scrutinised more strongly under any circumstances" like this, it begs the response "great, let's use under-12s as mules or boobytrap them to explode during flight, without their knowledge."

Humans are the perfect machine to analyse a situation and make educated, intuitive guesses, then act depending on their opinion.
Taking away their ability to use their own reasoning simply hampers them and reduces their ability to function (which, in the case of security staff, is idiotic).

rosyDecember 20, 2005 4:54 AM

hello

i want to ask you that what does it mean nit terorist? how many group ?

thank you

rosy

jason disagreesMarch 14, 2007 11:39 PM

I am the first to criticize the government, but this just seems like you are looking for a reason to fight. The government does plenty of stupid things, finding something better to criticize should not be difficult.

Have you considered that the TSA policy might allow some human judgment? Even though a person

It seems perfectly logical that if a name is on the list further checking should be done before proceeding.

It is plausible that a government agency has determined the name of an infant whom is under the care of suspected terrorists.

How can you expect a TSA agent to ignore a TSDB hit, regardless of how innocent the suspect looks? The TSA agent has no idea how or why the name is on the list, it is their duty to find out why before proceeding.

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