No, I'm Mohammed T. Atta, Jr.


Via Politech comes this MSNBC story about the travails of people with common names who keep getting put on terrorist watch lists at airports. Shed a tear for frequent flyers named, for instance, Mary Smith:

Last week, Mary Smith tried to board the Delta shuttle at Reagan National Airport for a weekend trip home to New York. Smith, a card-carrying Delta frequent flier, makes the trip several times a month during the school year. When she arrived at the shuttle gate, Smith said she handed the Delta agent her frequent flier card, her driver's license and her Georgetown ID (to verify she was eligible for the student fare). The agent took her information, typed it into the computer, then told her the airline had to obtain additional "clearance" and disappeared with Smith's identification in hand. Nearly two hours and two shuttle flights later, she said, the agents returned.

But more important, throw down a stiff drink at the airport lounge when you realize how easy it is to cut down on "false positives," according to a Transportation Security Administration spokesman:

TSA spokesman Mark Hatfield said using middle initials, middle names or even suffixes such as "Jr." could cut down the number of "false positives." He said the government is working on a new computer screening system called "secure flight" that seeks to eliminate the problem. The new system, Hatfield said, will allow the government to compare information from the airline reservation system against other databases to see if the passenger really matches the name on the list. The new system is expected to debut in March.

As anonymous letter writer to Politech's Declan McCullagh (author of our senses-shattering June cover story on the "upside of zero privacy") notes, this suggests that "all you need to do to get off a do-not-fly-list is modify your name in some way by adding a middle initial or a suffix. In other words, the folks responsible for the list are too stupid to figure out how to prevent false positives, but a true terrorist can get off the list by adding a middle initial."

Whole MSNBC story here.

Politech stuff here.

Reason's February cover story on the TSA, "Dominate. Intimidate. Control.: The Sorry Record of the Transportation Security Administration," here.