An effective no-fly list should be able to get off the ground

Imagine the following scenario. You arrive at the airport to check in for a flight to take you to your vacation. You give your passport to the attendant and wait for your boarding pass. The attendant swipes your documentation and suddenly furrows her/his brow. The passport is swiped again. More furrows. The attendant asks you to wait a minute and goes off to consult with a colleague. The next thing you know two guys in uniform come to escort you to a room as there seems to be a ‘problem’.

Congratulations!! You are on a no-fly list. Or as it is sometimes euphemistically known, a ‘passenger protect list’ (WTF? No one appears to be ‘protecting’ your interests despite the fact that you are – or rather are trying to be – a ‘passenger).

Here is how the program is supposed to work (this is taken from the Public Safety Canada Web site):

This program is administered by Public Safety Canada and Transport Canada, in cooperation with several federal departments and agencies. It allows the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, to list an individual if there are reasonable grounds to suspect that:

  1. the individual will engage or attempt to engage in an act that would threaten transportation security; or
  2. they are attempting to travel abroad to commit certain terrorism offences, as defined in the Criminal Code, such as terrorist attacks, funding for weapons, training and recruitment.

The Minister may direct an air carrier to take a specific, reasonable and necessary action to prevent a listed person from engaging in such activities, such as by directing an air carrier to deny transportation to the individual or require them to undergo additional screening.

Makes perfect sense, right? Especially after 9/11, where aircraft were used as weapons rather than as leverage to get somewhere or something, governments decided to nip this threat in the bud. Who does not want to fly safely?

But here is where it all goes wrong. The system appears to rely on names, and only names, so that if yours is the same as, or uncannily similar to, that of a known or suspected terrorist, you get ‘special treatment’. This probably does not pose most of us problems if your moniker happens to be Xanathrug Bzerkput, but if you are John Smith or Mahmoud Mohammed I think you can see where it gets to be a complication. This is exactly what seems to be happening to a Vancouver mom whose four-year old has a Muslim name that must sound an awful lot like ‘Osama bin Laden’ or something.

What I don’t get is why all these false positives are clogging up the system and making travel a hellish experience for some. It HAS to be easier to narrow down all the Mahmoud Mohammeds in the world to just those you legitimately want to prevent from getting on a plane, either for reason 1) above – though in light of increased security at airports these days more likely 2), i.e. foreign fighters.

How simple is the current system anyway? Is it just a list of names? Seriously? In 2019? Why can’t it be a name, a DOB, a digital photo, an address, even bio-data? We have the technology people!

So imagine the following scenario. Suppose ‘Phil Gurski’ is on a no-fly list. Now suppose, somewhat unrealistically, that two Phil Gurskis show up at the airport. The one you don’t want on the aircraft happens to be me: an old white guy with a bushy grey beard and a bald spot. The other is a 14-year old kid with braces and long blond hair. In this event, why on earth would authorities treat both the same? What possible reason can there be for NOT coming up with a better way to do this?

We will never get back to the halcyon days of air travel that you may have seen in 1960s movies and ads (think Frank Sinatra singing ‘Come fly with me’ and you’ll get the idea). But that does not mean that we cannot make the no-fly system not just more efficient but fairer. The fact that almost 20 years after 9/11 four-year olds are still going through extra security is a joke. Fix this, dammit, and fix it now!

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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