2017-06-24

LONDON - Innocent people around the world have been added to a watch list of terrorists and criminals, an investigation reveals today. Research by an international consortium of media organisations exposes the secret World Check database, which lists over 2 million people.

The watch list of “high risk” people and organisations is compiled by Thomson Reuters, the British firm. It is sold to almost all the world’s major banks, the online payment processor PayPal, police forces, intelligence agencies and non-government organisations.

Tomaso Falchetta, a legal officer at Privacy International, said: “The risk of discriminating against individuals, groups, and communities is very high.”

Following the leak of the watch list on a public internet site, the investigation reveals a range of questionable entries, including:

  • José Miguel Vivanco, a director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), was added to the watch list with a note recording his work on the prosecution of Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean dictator. Dinah PoKempner, the organisation’s General Counsel, said: “We are surprised and puzzled to find ourselves and Mr. Vivanco in this database and can’t imagine what standards are being applied.”
  • The activist group Greenpeace was listed after being fined for accidentally damaging a coral reef, while Occupy Wall Street was blacklisted over alleged links to Anonymous hackers.
  • Muslim individuals and organisations -- including the Council on American Islamic Relations, the Central Council of Muslims in Germany and the Belgian League of Muslims -- were listed in the terrorism category on the basis of dubious claims including some drawn from internet hate sites.
  • The whistle-blower Chelsea Manning was added to the ‘financial crime’ category shortly after her arrest for passing information to WikiLeaks.
  • Opposition politicians in countries with poor human rights records, including Sri Lanka and Eritrea, were blacklisted on the basis of false allegations by their governments.
  • Former Guantanamo detainees Haji Faiz Mohammed and Naqib Ullah remained on the watch list even after being released and cleared.
  • Delphine Boël, the unrecognised daughter of the former King of Belgium, blamed the listing for the closure of her bank accounts in 2012.
  • A potato farmer in the Netherlands was listed as a potential money laundering risk after serving on a provincial council.
  • The system is supposed to identify people connected to terrorism and financial crime, as well as senior politicians who banks must monitor for money laundering activity.

People listed on the database could find themselves refused service by banks, while blacklisted charities and businesses may lose out on grants and contracts.

Thomson Reuters does not contact the people it adds to its database, which is compiled using media reports and other public sources. Banks are forbidden from telling customers they are on the watch list.

A copy of the database as it stood in 2014 was accidentally leaked on a public internet server, where it was discovered last summer by Chris Vickery, a computer security researcher in the US.

Willem Debeuckelaere, the Belgian privacy commissioner, said there were multiple issues of concern with the World Check database, which he would be discussing with his counterparts across the EU.

Thomson Reuters previously apologised in court to London’s Finsbury Park Mosque, which it had wrongly listed in the terrorism category. Lawyers for the mosque say claims from others are likely to follow.

David Crundwell, Senior Vice-President at Thomson Reuters, said: “World-Check has a clear privacy statement available on its website which sets out how any individual can contact us if they believe any of the information held is inaccurate, and we would urge them to do so.” He said that inclusion in World-Check did not imply guilt, and users of the list were told to verify the information themselves before acting on it. He claimed the list was regularly updated.

The results of the investigation are published simultaneously today by media outlets in six countries. They are: The Times (UK), OneWorld and Argos (NPO Radio 1) (Netherlands), De Tijd (Belgium), La Repubblica (Italy), NDR/Süddeutsche Zeitung (Germany) and The Intercept (USA). The investigation was supported by Journalismfund.eu.

The World Check Black List Project team was put together by Eveline Lubbers, who coordinated the research and organised the joint publication.

Eveline Lubbers

Eveline Lubbers PhD is an independent investigator and one of the founders of the Undercover Research Group and Spinwatch. She is the author of Secret Manoeuvres in the Dark, Corporate and Police spying on Activists (Pluto, 2012) and the initiator & contributing editor of Battling Big Business: Countering Greenwash, Front Groups and Other Forms of Corporate Bullying (2002).

Tom Wills

Tom Wills is Data Journalism Editor at The Times of London. He leads a small unit of investigative data journalists, who use computational techniques to find stories hidden in data.

Cora Currier

Cora Currier is a staff reporter with The Intercept, a non-profit news organisation based in New York that covers national security, politics, civil liberties, the environment, international affairs, technology, criminal justice, the media, and more.

Jasmin Klofta

Jasmin Klofta is an investigative journalist working for ARD Panorama and the NDR Ressort Investigation (research cooperation with the Süddeutsche Zeitung). She focuses on politics, surveillance and digital business.

Stefania Maurizi

Stefania Maurizi works for La Repubblica. This is the Italian leading newspaper, and belongs to the Leading European Alliance, set up by seven European newspapers, from Die Welt (Germany) to Le Figaro (France), producing quality journalism.

Lars Bové

Lars Bové, investigative journalist and coordinator of investigative journalism at De Tijd
a Belgian newspaper, that focuses on business and financial news, but also politics.

Sanne Terlingen

Sanne Terlingen works as an investigative journalist for OneWorld and Argos.
 
OneWorld is a multimedia platform specialised in reporting on cross-border issues such as migration, climate change and the war on terror. Argos is the main investigative reporting radio program on Dutch public radio. It has a long history of exposing abuse of power and holding authorities to account for lack of accountability and transparency.