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How Foreign Names Trip Up Terrorism Databases

In last month's Boston Marathon bombing, the key suspect's name, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, had multiple spellings on U.S. intelligence watch lists. How can we beat this problem?

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Law enforcement and intelligence agencies have many tools at their disposal to fight terrorism. But the most basic of mistakes, often the result of human error, can have deadly consequences. A suspected terrorist's name, for instance, may be spelled differently on various watch lists, an error that can make it difficult to identify and track a potentially dangerous individual.

Carl Hoffman, founder and CEO of Basis Technology, an 18-year-old text analytics software company based in Cambridge, Mass., sees this as a serious problem that needs to be addressed right away.

"Watch lists play a very important role in national security. We have an obligation to implement them as accurately as we can, and to build information systems that minimize the chance of human error," Hoffman said in a phone interview with InformationWeek.

He singled out two major watch lists as being particularly problematic. One is issued by the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC); the other is the National Counter Terrorism Center's Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, also known as TIDE.

"Both of those watch lists have serious architectural problems -- problems with the way the lists are implemented," said Hoffman, who stressed that he was speaking strictly from a linguistic and technological perspective.

[ Want to know how the healthcare system handled the Boston Marathon bombing? Read Boston Hospital CIO Reflects After Bombing. ]

As an example, Hoffman used the case of Nigerian citizen Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, popularly known as the "underwear bomber." Abdulmutallab was convicted of trying to detonate plastic explosives hidden in his underwear on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.

"His name was placed on the TIDE watch list, and his name was present on other lists as well," said Hoffman. "But later when he became a subject of scrutiny, people who were looking for him were unable to find his name."

Why? "He had a very complex name, and an Arabic name," Hoffman recalled. "And when you translate a name from Arabic, as in the case of Abdulmutallab, into our writing system, that's a great opportunity for errors to be introduced."

When investigators and analysts translate names from a foreign language, there may be multiple translations. "And attempting to keep track of all the different spellings of a foreign name can lead to failed queries, and to look-ups being missed ... as definitely happened in the Abdulmutallab case," said Hoffman.

A similar situation may have occurred in last month's Boston Marathon bombing, where the key suspect's name, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, had multiple spellings on U.S. intelligence watch lists.

In January 2012, Tsarnaev's flight reservation for a six-month trip to Dagestan and Chechnya triggered a security alert to U.S. customs authorities, according to an April 24 article in The New York Times.

But his trip didn't set off a similar alert on the TIDE watch list "because the spelling variants of his name and the birth dates entered into the system -- exactly how the Russian government had provided the data months earlier -- were different enough from the correct information to prevent an alert," the Times reported.

Hoffman declined to speculate on the Tsarnaev case, saying it's too early to take a position on an ongoing investigation. He did say, however, that there are smarter methods of placing foreign names on watch lists, such as entering them in their original language, as well as in English.

"If you look at the Treasury Department's OFAC list, the only way a name goes on that list is after it has been translated into our writing system, namely the letters A through Z," said Hoffman.

"You have an opportunity to precisely select the name that you're looking for, even if that name is in Chinese, Arabic, Persian or whatever language. And then your database entry can capture that name, both in its original spelling, and (in) ... English."

The solution, Hoffman believes, is better implementation of software technology that exists today.

"You can't go blaming the analysts, investigators and cops," he said. "The burden lies with the information architects. And they need to know that it's possible to build watch lists and systems that index and catalog names, and to do it in a way that is multilingual."

He added: "Is the terrorist supposed to spell his name correctly when he's purchasing his plane ticket? Are investigators who've never heard the name of the guy, or who are hearing a tip over a telephone, supposed to know to spell a name like Abdulmutallab or Tsarnaev?"

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