Concerns about TIDE anti-terror database

TIDE database, which feeds a variety of other watchlists, raises concerns that it's filled with misidentifications that are impossible to remove.

The Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) is a storehouse for data about people the US intelligence community thinks bear watching. It exists to address the problem of federal agencies being unable to share data amongst themselves. But, The Washington Post reports, TIDE has spawned many more problems.

Ballooning from fewer than 100,000 files in 2003 to about 435,000, the growing database threatens to overwhelm the people who manage it. "The single biggest worry that I have is long-term quality control," said Russ Travers, in charge of TIDE at the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean. "Where am I going to be, where is my successor going to be, five years down the road?"

TIDE has also created concerns about secrecy, errors and privacy. The list marks the first time foreigners and U.S. citizens are combined in an intelligence database. The bar for inclusion is low, and once someone is on the list, it is virtually impossible to get off it. At any stage, the process can lead to "horror stories" of mixed-up names and unconfirmed information, Travers acknowledged.

Out of the tens of thousands of times people's names get flagged from watchlists, half of those are misidentifications, according to the Government Accountability Office.

"How many are on the lists, how are they compiled, how is the information used, how do they verify it?" asked Lillie Coney, associate director of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center. Such information is classified, and individuals barred from traveling are not told why.

Even the wife of Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) had been delayed repeatedly while airlines queried whether Catherine Stevens was the watch-listed Cat Stevens. Why is the singer, who changed his name to Yusuf Islam, on the list? As with everyone, the US isn't saying.

TIDE is a vacuum cleaner for both proven and unproven information, and its managers disclaim responsibility for how other agencies use the data. "What's the alternative?" Travers said. "I work under the assumption that we're never going to have perfect information -- fingerprints, DNA -- on 6 billion people across the planet. . . . If someone actually has a better idea, I'm all ears."