We Are All Terrorists Now

In the future, we may or may not each get our 15 minutes of fame, but it appears will we all be on the terrorist watch list.  According to Kevin Drum, the GAO reported 755,000 records in the the terrorist watch list.  Drum helpfully graphs the growth of the list and extrapolates to 2008:

I had a fleeting warm fuzzy feeling, thinking "well, at least the GAO is on their case."  But in fact, they are not.  Here is the summary paragraph from the report:

GAO recommends several actions to promote a comprehensive and coordinated approach to terrorist-related screening. Among them are actions to monitor and respond to vulnerabilities and to establish up-to-date guidelines, strategies, and plans to facilitate expanded and enhanced use of the list.

The departments that provided comments on the report generally agreed with GAO's findings and recommendations.

No discussion about the size of the list - the sole recommendation is around using the list in more places for more purposes.  The report, while discussing a number of times the number of people detained for matching the list, does not even mention the false positive issue.  This is just criminally stupid, and these numbers underestimate the true cost.  First, there is no way that 755,000 or even 75,000 people traveling in this country are terrorist threats, so the list is dominated by false positives.  But in addition, if every name on the list is shared, on average, by 10** people who have no relation to the suspect but the name, then the results are insane.  Five or ten thousand (at most) truly dangerous people are sharing the list with 10 million innocents.  That's a false positive rate over 99.9%.

**UPDATE: This seems conservative.  This site tells me that Warren Meyer, not a particularly common name, is shared by 80 people in the US.

Logo There are
people with my name
in the U.S.A.

How many have your name?


  1. M. Hodak:

    What about variations like Myer?

    I don't have to worry about any of that:

    * There is 1 person in the U.S. named Marc Hodak.

  2. Barbara Meyer:

    I entered my maiden name, Swetman, and they had 0 (zero) matches. I know I still have relatives in Mississippi with that last name. Sooooo, what do they know?

  3. Xmas:

    Aren't we lucky, Mr. Unique Name. (On the plus side, at least one congressman has my name.)

    HowManyOfMe.comLogoThere are
    people with the name Christopher Smith in the U.S.A.
    How many have your name?

  4. Blackadder:

    When I entered my name (my real name, not my internet pseudonym), it said there were 0 people in the U.S.A. with my name. So apparently I don't exist. Somehow I find that reassuring in this case.

  5. Blackadder:

    Lest anyone be inclined to doubt the anonymous guy on the Internet, you can get the same result by using Austan Goolsbee as the test name (for the record, I'm not Austan Goolsbee).

  6. Pieter:

    Excellent post.

    This is a very important issue. The travel restrictions that accompany being on a watchlist are quite onerous. Essentially being put on a watchlist is a punishment for some activity, but people who are punished in this way never get a day in court, never get to hear the evidence against them, never get to get know what they've been accused of, and never get a chance to clear their names. I'd be sceptical of this system if it affected more than a hundred people. At 750,000 people, it's absurd.

    Thanks for presenting this interesting informaiton.

    [PS If you look at the howmanyofme.com site carefully, they say that they're extrapolating the numbers from data made public by the US census. About 20% of names are so rare that the census bureau didn't want to give any information out about them.]

  7. Brad Warbiany:

    Yes, apparently I don't exist either. Does that mean I can stop paying taxes?

  8. Bearster:

    How many islamists are there in this country right now? How many people who believe that murder of kufirs is always acceptable, mostly acceptable, or sometimes acceptable?

    Hint: it isn't just a few wacko "extremists". I sure hope it's not 750,000. But I think it's far larger than most Americans believe.

    For the record, I hope to be proven wrong on this one!

  9. 72 km/h:

    Alex Tabarrok doesn't exist either. I knew it! Tyler Cowen has been using a pseudonym for his angrier blog posts!

  10. happyjuggler0:

    I don't exist either, nor do any of my relatives, despite the fact that Google has managed to find us, and even give us our telephone numbers.

    LMAO. The link is lame.

    Hmmmmmm. "Is lame" is Islamic! Call homeland security!

  11. Doug G.:

    Hmm.. I don't exist either.

    By the way, apparently some of our air marshalls, are suspected terrorists. This story talks about them being denied boarding: http://www.washingtontimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080430/NATION/946059998/1002

  12. mahtso:

    "First, there is no way that 755,000 or even 75,000 people traveling in this country are terrorist threats, so the list is dominated by false positives."

    According to the report that was linked the list is not only of people in the US, but a worldwide-list and is a list of those that "are reasonably suspected of having possible links to terrorism" (i.e., one need not be a terrorist threat to get on the list).

  13. bbartlog:

    How many people who believe that murder of kufirs is always acceptable, mostly acceptable, or sometimes acceptable?

    Problem is, this belief alone (while repellent) does not make someone a terrorist threat. Lots of people have extremely misanthropic beliefs, but no real desire or initiative to act on them.
    I think it's also worth pointing out that the high false positive rate, in addition to causing vast inconvenience for the affected, will corrupt the effectiveness of the system in actually catching any terrorists. Because once some screener or guard starts getting one hit per half hour on the people passing through, they're bound to become less diligent in their scrutiny than they would if they got one a week or one a month.