How hard can it be to make a workable no-fly list?

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on March 9, 2018


In the 1997 movie Rocket Man (starring Canadian actor Harland Williams), a comedy about the first manned mission to Mars, there is a scene where a senior NASA manager, played by Jeffery DeMunn, is trying to justify why he did not predict and cannot handle a potentially deadly error on the Red Planet.  In response to criticism he sputters “But we followed policy!  We followed policy!”  He is shoved aside and a former disgraced astronaut played by Beau Bridges steps in to save the day.

“I just followed policy”.  How often have you heard that expressed by an official, government or otherwise, to cover up a mistake or an error in executing policy?  This is what appears to be happening with Canada’s ‘no-fly’ list created to stop terrorists from boarding aircraft. The programme’s full name is the ‘Passenger Protect Program’ (PPP) and, according to Public Safety Canada it is intended to “work with air carriers to screen commercial passenger flights to, from and within Canada, and uses specific, reasonable and necessary measures to address security threats.”  Those threats are further defined as a direct threat to the aircraft or instances where someone is seeking to travel abroad (via a plane) to join a terrorist group or commit an act of terrorism.

No sane person would argue with this policy, would they?  Don’t we want to prevent more attacks like 9/11 or stop our citizens from leaving the country to commit mayhem in other countries?   I think we are all on the same page here.  So why does the programme still stop six-year olds from taking their flights? I think we all agree that few terrorist are six years old.

The problem seems to occur in cases where that six year old happens to have the same name as a 26-year old terrorist.  Once that name is flagged at check-in the system kicks in and the ticket holder, even if he is six, is denied boarding.  The Trudeau government has promised to create a $78 million stand alone new database that will prevent these things from happening.  Apparently the current PPP does not ‘include dates of birth, sex or other information to ensure that two people with the same name aren’t mistaken.’  That’s why kids are viewed as terrorists.  I can imagine what flustered parents are told (apparently repeatedly in the case of the same child): “But the database says….!”

Seriously?  You mean that Public Safety Canada has had this tool since 2007 and all it contains is a list of names??  What database has only one field?   How hard could it have been to create more fields that contain kinda important distinguishing information like DOB and sex?  I am no computer genius but  I cannot imagine this would have been too difficult.

I accept the need for the PPP and for it to be continually updated and maintained.  What I do not accept is that the creators did not have the foresight to consider they might want to put in more information to prevent embarrassments such as the ones we see happen to six-year olds.

In the wake of occasions where convicted terrorists or those who pal around with terrorists are allowed to take selfies with the Prime Minister (or his wife), as well as the growing chorus of Canadians who want to bring back Islamic State terrorists from Iraq and Syria to ‘deradicalise’ them, we are acquiring a reputation as soft (or stupid) on terrorism.  While we need to accept that terrorism is thankfully a small threat to us in Canada we must still do our due diligence.  Having a ‘no fly’ list that cannot preclude children defies any sense, at least as I see it.

Just as in the movie, officials look silly when they try to hide behind policy.  In this case building an appropriate, effective, efficient, workable and error-free (or rather as error-free as possible) database surely can’t be rocket science, can it?

NB The Trudeau government announced in its February 2018 budget that it would allocate $81 million to create a ‘new’ PPP.

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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