Shostack + Friends Blog Archive


More on Watch Lists

To follow up to my post on Terror Suspects and Firearms, I’d like to take a moment to rail against the Kafka-esque implementation of “watch lists” in the United States.

For the FBI, or other investigative or intelligence agencies, to have lists of “interesting people” makes perfect sense. You’ll always have people who you suspect are bad, who you don’t have sufficient evidence to arrest. You may even have people who you do have evidence to arrest, but want to leave them free for a while to learn more. When these lists are secret and contained, they make a lot of sense.

The difficulty happens when these lists start to be partially exposed to the world, for a variety of good purposes. Keeping terrorists off an airplane? Sounds good. Keeping them from buying explosives? Sounds good. The trouble is, the process of getting on the list is easy. Have coffee with a nutjob, and boom, you’re on the list. It makes perfect sense. But today, rather than having an FBI agent follow you around, ask a few questions, and forget about you, you’re added to a database. When the list could be prioritized by “is this person worth following?” it worked better. But today, you’re entered into a database. We don’t know how big that database is. We do know, thanks to Johnnie Thomas, that you can’t get out.

There’s no one who wants to be responsible for taking a grandmother off the list. No one wants to be the one who took someone who later committed a crime off the list. And because storage is cheap, they don’t really have to.

Now the watch list have started being used as a no-fly list. We have a suggestion that they be used to prevent people from buying guns. There’s no personal judgement, or even economics of investigations to control the lists. You’re in the database, you must be a bad person. A threat. A fifth columnist. Better to prevent you from being a danger to others.

But you have no way to learn why you’re in the database. You have no way to learn what the database says about you. You have no way to get out of the database. Your right to due process has been discarded. Is this the country we want to live in?

One comment on "More on Watch Lists"

  • TrustBlog says:


    The only way for the people to fight against a police state is by collective action. If everyone is on the watch list, then it ceases to be of any significance. But to deliberately get yourself onto the blacklist? Foolhardy unless everyone else does th…

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