be thankful your name’s not Muhammad

“The banking industry has been actively assisting the government in post-9/11 efforts to find and block money directed to terrorists, using the same tools they’ve employed for years in the war on drugs. (…) Companies and banks check names against the 80-page-long list of names maintained by OFAC, the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. It includes approximately 5,000 “Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons” people and organizations with whom Americans are not supposed to do business, including terrorists, narcotics traffickers and money-launderers. Banks have used this list for about a decade (…) When new names are added, financial institutions check them against their own customer lists.”

So far so good. Here’s the problem:

“Just after September 11, the FBI drew up a list of names of people it wanted to question, giving the dossier out to private businesses, such as hotels and airlines, here and abroad, as a new experiment in information-sharing called Project Lookout. But the FBI soon lost control of the Project Lookout list, and bootleg copies with added names and even typos were passed around the private sector. As many as 50 different versions may now exist. “This thing took on a life of its own,” says FBI spokesperson Bill Carter, who says that from the very beginning, companies may have misinterpreted it as a list of people not to do business with. “It’s a defunct list that shouldn’t be used for that purpose.” ”

So, if your name is Muhammad or Khan, or whatever other surnames are likely to be on that list, you can say goodbye to your American Express credit card. That’s what happened to a few people in this story. Read it in full here.

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