Genealogists use the Soundex system to find ancestors and other relatives in public records. Now the federal government uses the same system to identify potential airline hijackers. The government is learning the same lessons that genealogists learned long ago: the system doesn't work very well.
The Soundex system helps find names that sound alike but which may have different spelling variations. Such a tool is helpful when names have changed frequently or when those who wrote the records simply recorded the names as they heard them, not checking for consistency.
Every Soundex Code consists of a letter and three numbers, such as W-252. The letter is always the first letter of the surname, and the hyphen is optional. The numbers are assigned to the remaining letters of the surname according to a coding method devised by Robert Russell and licensed by Remington-Rand, the company that did the coding for the 1900 Census.
For a detailed explanation of the Soundex system, see my Soundex Explained article from the July 15, 2002 edition of this newsletter at http://www.eogn.com/archives/news0228.htm. In that article I wrote, "While Soundex is a great tool and in widespread use, it certainly is not perfect. For example, it fails when the first letters are different. For instance, Knowles is coded as K542 while both Noles and Nolles are N420. Likewise, Cantor is C536 while the similar sound of Kantor is K536." The name "Kennedy" would be assigned the Soundex code K530, which is the same code assigned to Kemmet, Kenndey, Kent, Kimmet, Kimmett, Kindt and Knott.
The U.S. federal government maintains a list of possible terrorists who should not be allowed to fly on airliners. This list contained 16 names on Sept. 11, 2001. Today, it has more than 20,000.
More than 2,000 people have complained to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) about being falsely identified as a possible terrorist.At one point, airlines were calling the agency at least 30 times a day to say that they had stopped a passenger whose name was similar to one on the list but, after further investigation, was determined not to be a terror suspect, according to a TSA memo. Worst of all, the government does not seem interested in correcting the problem. The Air Transport Association, the airline trade group, met with the TSA's top policy director in December 2002 to address the "false positives problem," according to a TSA memo. Nothing has changed since then.
In response to a federal court order, the TSA and the FBI released more than 300 pages of documents related to the no-fly and related lists this week) . The American Civil Liberties Union had filed suit on behalf of Jan Adams and Rebecca Gordon, two peace activists who wanted to know why their names had turned up on the no-fly list.
As these documents explain, every time a passenger books a ticket, the airline checks the traveler's name against two enormous government databases, or watch lists, of people the government believes pose a threat. The FAA created two lists in 2001: a no-fly list and a so-called selectee list, both of which airlines compare against reservation records. Both databases use Soundex to check passenger names against the watch lists.
When the TSA was formed in 2002, it took over maintenance of the lists from the FAA. The no-fly list grew from 16 names supplied by the FBI in 2001 to 1,000 names by the end of 2002, according to the newly released TSA documents. There are now more than 20,000 names on the no-fly list, some of which are aliases, according to a homeland security source who is not allowed to release such numbers. The same source also stated that the selectee list currently contains several thousand names.
Unfortunately, the phonetic coding systems tend to ensnare people who have similar-sounding names, even though a human being could tell the difference. Earlier this month, for example, Rep. Donald E. Young (R-Alaska), said he was flagged on the "watch list" when the airline computer system mistook him for a man on the list named Donald Lee Young. Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) was similarly stopped from boarding a flight, reportedly because his name matched that of someone on the "no fly" list. Of course, the name "Kennedy" also matches Kemmet, Kenndey, Kent, Kimmet, Kimmett, Kindt and Knott.
Perhaps it is time for the federal government to add a few experienced genealogists as consultants to the payroll. They could quickly advise how imperfect the Soundex system is.
It is difficult to believe that one of the principal tools used for homeland security depends upon such outdated and flawed technology. Travelers who have been flagged by the "no fly" list reportedly now foil the system simply by altering how their names are spelled on their tickets - adding their middle initials, full middle name or titles, for example. Of course, would-be terrorists can do the same. One has to wonder just how much security this list provides.