The Offensive Stupidity Of The No-Fly List

Last Friday (July 31st) my wife, my daughter, and I were to fly back from Vancouver to New York City after our vacation in Canada’s Jasper and Banff National Parks. On arrival at Vancouver Airport, we began the usual check-in, got groped in security, and filled out customs forms. The US conducts all customs and passport checks in Canada itself for US-bound passengers; we waited in the line for US citizens. We were directed to a self-help kiosk, which issued a boarding pass for my wife with a black cross across it. I paid no attention to it at the time, but a few minutes later, when a US Customs and Border Protection officer directed us to follow him, I began to. We were directed to a waiting room, where I noticed a Muslim family–most probably from Indonesia or Malaysia–seated on benches. (The women wore headscarves; the man sported a beard but no moustache and wore a skull cap.)

I knew what was happening: once again, my wife had been flagged for the ‘no-fly’ list. The first time this had happened had been during our honeymoon to Spain some eleven years ago; the last time my wife had been flagged was on our return from Amsterdam four years ago. (That’s right; my wife had been allowed to fly to the US from Europe, but her entry into the US was blocked.) On each occasion, she had been questioned–in interrogatory fashion–by a brusque official, and then ‘let go.’ There was no consistency to the checks; sometimes they happened, sometimes they did not. For instance, my wife was not blocked from traveling to–or returning from–India in 2013. At the least, the security system being employed by the Department of Homeland Security was maddeningly inconsistent.

But matters did not end there. It was not clear why my wife had been placed on the ‘no-fly’ list in the first place. Was there something in her background data that matched those of a known ‘terrorist’? This seemed unlikely: she had been born in Michigan, grown up in Ohio, attended Ohio State University, gone to graduate school at the City University of New York, and then law school at Brooklyn Law School before beginning work with the National Labor Relations Board as a staff attorney. (During her college days, she had worked with a student’s group dedicated to justice in Palestine, but that seemed like slim pickings. On that basis, you could indict most Jewish students who attend four-year liberal arts colleges in the US.) But she is Muslim–or, as my wife likes to say, ‘she was born into a Muslim family’–and still retains her Muslim last name after marriage. That could certainly be a problem.

After the first instance of our being detained at an airport, we had expected no more detentions; after all, the US’ security officers would have noticed that a particular passport number, belonging to a particular American citizen, had been incorrectly flagged at a border check; they had ascertained to their satisfaction that all was well; surely, they would now remove that name and number combination from their lists and concentrate on their remaining ‘targets.’ The first check would have acted as a data refinement procedure for the learning data used by their profiling software; it would now work with a cleaner set and generate fewer ‘false positives’–like my wife. That’s how learning data systems are supposed to work; the ‘cleaner’ the learning data, the better the system works.

But that had not had happened. Over the course of the past eleven years, my wife was detained again and again, leading up to this last instance on last Friday. On each occasion, the same procedure: ‘Follow me please; sir, you stay right here.” (Mercifully, in Vancouver, perhaps noticing we had a child with us, the border officers allowed me to accompany her to their chambers.) And then, the questioning, which sought to establish her  credentials: “What’s your father’s name?” What’s your mother’s name” “Where do you work?” and so on. Finally, “Thank you, ma’am. You can go now.” But none of the information gathered in these sessions had any value whatsoever as far as the no-fly profiling system was concerned. That remained magnificently impervious to the empirical particulars of the world outside; as far it was concerned, my wife was still guilty. Sometimes.

When the interrogation of my wife had ended, I asked the border officer: “How do I get my wife off the list?” His reply: “I don’t know.” I then asked: “Do you have any idea why she was flagged today?” His reply: “She has a pretty common last name.” I stared at him, dumbfounded. When Sinn Féin was rated a quasi-terrorist organization, did the US flag every Irishman at JFK who bore the last name Adams? Could it really be possible that this profiling system was as stupid as this officer was making it out to be? But that hypothesis was not so implausible; there was nothing in my wife’s background that would indicate any reason to place her in the same class as those folks who might be potential 9/11’ers. Moreover, this profiling system remained dumb; it did not ‘learn’; its conditional probabilities stayed the same no matter what its handlers learned about its learning data.

It’s tempting to call this a Kafkaesque situation and let it go at that. (And perhaps throw in a few complaints about the petty harassment this generates; the Muslim family I saw waiting with us missed their flight, and the solitary male was rudely told to move at one point.) But there is more here; this system, this ‘silver bullet’ that is supposed to keep us safe and for which we should be willing to give up our civil liberties is useless. And dangerously so. Its very strengths, to look for patterns and evidence and generate plausible hypotheses about the guilt of its subjects, are compromised by its design. I’ve speculated why my wife’s entry in the no-fly list has not been deleted and the only plausible explanation I can come up with is that whoever makes the deletion takes a very tiny risk of being wrong; there is an infinitesimal probability that the ‘innocent’ person will turn out to be guilty, and scapegoats will then be found. Perhaps that fear of being indicted as the ones who the let the Trojan Horse through stays their hand.

Whatever the rationale, the end-result is the same: a useless, dangerous, and offensive security system that on a daily basis–I’m quite sure–subjects both citizens and non-citizens of the US to expensive and humiliating delays and interrogations. And makes us safer not at all.

One comment on “The Offensive Stupidity Of The No-Fly List

  1. […] That would be even easier to track and investigate with the fancy profiling algorithms used to slot Americans into No-Fly lists. “Our program indicates a non-trivial probability that this purchase warrants investigation […]

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