How A Treasury Terror List Is Preventing Americans With 'Scary' Names From Using Online Services
from the scary-names dept
We’ve talked a few times before about the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, a government office theoretically designed to keep money from flowing to and from scary people in scary countries or whatever. Its work typically amounts to keeping businesses from doing business-y things with people in places like North Korea and such. On the other hand, sometimes the folks at the OFAC get their knickers in a twist over a graphic novel about some of these scary people, so it’s not like these folks have a spotless record when it comes to keeping the proper targets in its collective sights.
But a couple of stories have been trickling in having to do with non-scary people who share names too-closely associated with actual scary people suddenly being denied online services due to the OFAC scare-list. The first of these concerned a man named Muhammad Zakir Khan being refused a registration for a multiplayer video game.
Gamasutra, which broke the story, reports that when Khan submitted his request, he received an unusual denial, one explaining that his name had come up as “a match against the Specially Designated Nationals list maintained by the United States of America’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.” Epic was, in other words, refusing Khan the opportunity to try out its new game simply because his name resembles that of someone who might be financially involved with terrorism.
Khan tweeted a a screengrab of the rejection form and hashtaged it “#Islamophobia.” Surprisingly, Epic Games founder Tim Sweeney replied to another tweet about the issue, claiming that it had been caused by an “[o]verly broad filter related to US trade restrictions.”
Which, you know, good for Epic Games. And I wouldn’t really refer to this as “islamophobia” so much as I’d refer to it as broad laziness by both a government agency and a corporation. Let’s think this through for one moment. If our Treasury Department is going to cast a worried eye towards Islamic terrorism such that it compiles a list of names that businesses are refused from interacting with, and if those names come from a region of the world where there is a certain repetition of these sorts of names (Muhammad Khan sounds like it could be akin to John Smith), then how useful is this directory of scary people to begin with? The point of the list is to identify bad actors, but if innocent folks are getting caught up in it, then it isn’t serving its chief function particularly well, now is it? But no matter, says the government agency. Just add the name to the list and damn the fallout to hell.
The broader question, of course, is why an online game should be checking registrations against the CFAC list to begin with. In this particular case, it appears the check was ported over from the game engine itself.
Unreal Engine 4 has a wide range of uses, both domestic and foreign, that apparently bring it under the umbrella of trade guidelines. Under ordinary circumstances, those restrictions should only apply to people who are using the engine to create new games. (For instance, the U.S. government presumably doesn’t want ISIS to use the engine to create a recruiting game.) But when Epic used the engine to make Paragon, it accidentally left those restrictions in place. Thus, the filter shouldn’t have been there in the first place, and no one should have been banned from Paragon, regardless of whether they show up on a watch list.
As I said: government laziness and corporate laziness combine to keep an innocent person from playing a video game. Success!
Such innocent circumstances don’t appear to be replicated in the story of Noor Ahmed’s attempt to sign up for a payment app called Venmo, which is normally a cinch to register for, but for which Ahmed still isn’t able to use.
When she tried to sign up last year, Venmo refused to add her. The company sent her an email instead, asking Ahmed to provide a stack of additional information to verify her identity. What followed was the opposite of simplicity: Ahmed had to obtain paper copies of her utility bills as well bank statements, and then find a fax machine (a practically unheard of technology for many younger people) to send them to Venmo. After complying with this rigamarole, Ahmed still was unable to sign on to Venmo.
It turns out that she, like thousands of other Americans, shares a name with someone on a list created by a Treasury group called the Office of Foreign Assets Control. This list is called “Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons,” and includes (on page 33) a 41-year-old Afghan man also named Noor Ahmed. The New York-based Ahmed, said she is familiar with such mix-ups.
“I was born and raised in California, but I’m taken into secondary customs at the airport no matter what because of my name,” said Ahmed. “I think it’s now extending to other parts of my life.”
Whatever your thoughts on terrorism and international politics, it’s quite clear that this isn’t helpful. It isn’t stopping a terrorist from using the app; it’s stopping a US citizen from using it. It isn’t helpfully identifying a person for a US business to steer clear of; it’s mis-identifying a US citizen. Hell, the list can’t even keep men and women straight. For the CFAC list to useful, never mind non-discriminatory, it should at least be able to keep a valid US citizen from being caught up in the web.
If it can’t manage that simple task, it’s probably worth revisiting whether this list should be employed at all.