A corporate database used by banks and other institutions to screen clients for crimes such as money laundering and terror financing has labeled dozens of U.S. citizens as connected to terrorism on the basis of outdated or unsubstantiated allegations. An analysis of a 2014 copy of the database, which is known as World-Check, also indicates that many thousands of people, including children, were listed on the basis of tenuous links to crime or to politically prominent persons.
The database relied on allegations stemming from right-wing Islamophobic websites to categorize under “terrorism” people and groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations, several mosques, and national and regional Islamic organizations.
Political activists also had World-Check listings originating from old, minor infractions. For instance, 16 Greenpeace activists who were arrested for protesting the “Star Wars” missile-defense program in 2001 were listed under the general “crime” category, though they ultimately pleaded guilty to misdemeanor trespassing and never served time.
World-Check, which is owned by Thomson Reuters, contains over 2 million entries, most of them for people who are in government, on international sanctions lists, or have convictions for financial crimes. Thomson Reuters claims that World-Check is a risk-assessment tool, not a blacklist, and that a listing is not necessarily meant to imply wrongdoing.
Yet many of the entries, especially for activist groups, raise questions about World-Check’s criteria.
Greenpeace International earned a listing as an organization apparently because of a 2005 accident when one of its ships damaged a coral reef. The entry for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals links to comments the group’s founder made in support of militant animal liberation activists. Other activist nonprofits, such as Médecins Sans Frontières and Human Rights Watch, are listed without any specific allegations.
World-Check’s data “frankly is nothing more than a Google search sometimes, at best,” said Farooq Bawja, a British lawyer who has led legal action against the company.
Thomson Reuters boasts that 49 of the top 50 banks in the world and 300 global government and intelligence agencies use World-Check to screen clients or job applicants. Nonprofits also use it to check out grant recipients. In some cases a World-Check listing has led to organizations having bank accounts closed, and may have other untold ramifications.
“This kind of list reminds me of those early years after 9/11 when almost every Muslim active in the American Muslim community was on some sort of list that caused them to be stopped or searched at the border,” said Ihsan Bagby, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Kentucky. Bagby is named in World-Check under the “terrorism” category, apparently because he was a former board member of CAIR. His World-Check profile links to right-wing sites that circulate a decades-old, chopped-up quote about Muslims in the United States.
When told about the World-Check listing, Mark Floegel, research director for Greenpeace, said, “There is no justification for placing peaceful protesters on a watchlist meant to monitor against crimes such as money laundering or terror financing. Peaceful protest is not an invitation to permanent interference in the lives of citizens.”
A copy of the World-Check database from 2014, containing some 2.2 million entries, was discovered online last year by security researcher Chris Vickery; it had been left unprotected on a third party’s servers.
The Intercept worked with media organizations across the world to analyze and research the World-Check database. They were: The Times of London, NPO Radio 1 Argos/OneWorld in The Netherlands, De Tijd in Belgium, La Repubblica in Italy, and NDR/Süddeutsche Zeitung in Germany. The work was supported by Journalismfund.eu.
“I don’t know why it was exposed to the public internet or what the reasoning was, it just was,” Vickery told The Times. He shared the database with these organizations on the condition that it not be made public in its entirety, partly out of concern that the records include unsubstantiated allegations against many individuals. The Intercept is not naming individuals on the list who we were unable to contact before publication.
In February, Finsbury Park Mosque — the target of a deadly terror attack last week — won a judgment against Thomson Reuters after its World-Check listing led to HSBC closing the mosque’s bank account. Bawja, who led the suit, told The Intercept’s Dutch partner that he has roughly 20 other clients preparing to file claims against World-Check in the wake of the Finsbury case.
“I want them to start cleaning up their act, rapidly,” Bawja said. “And start apologizing to the victims.”
More than 400,000 American citizens are on the 2014 list. Some of them are connected to categories of criminality like terrorism, organized crime, or narcotics. The vast majority are, or are linked to, “politically exposed persons”— people who might be able to abuse their public roles to corrupt ends. Thomson Reuters notes in a 2008 white paper that “PEPs are by no means necessarily money launderers or embezzlers, nor automatically involved in corrupt financial practices.”
World-Check’s PEP listings include not just members of Congress and high-level federal officials, but also extend to state-level administrators, their spouses, and other family members. These often include children. One former big-city mayor is listed, as are three of his children, the youngest of whom was an infant at the time she was entered into World-Check. (We are not naming the mayor since he could not be reached for comment.) The Times of London noted that a 9-month-old baby had been listed as a relative of a PEP; her father is a distant member of the British royal family, 43rd in line for the throne.
None of the U.S.-based World-Check listees contacted by The Intercept had experienced bank account closures or other financial irregularities, but the effect of a listing is hard to judge. Most people likely never know that they are on World-Check; Thomson Reuters doesn’t inform them, and banks don’t usually reveal to people the reasons why they were denied service.
“How often are people actually being denied accounts or having accounts closed, or being denied commercial mortgages or loans?” said Bagby. “It’s not having an impact on me, to my knowledge, but this is very disturbing.”
In a statement, a senior vice president for Thomson Reuters, David Crundwell, said that he could not comment on individual listings, but pointed to the company’s privacy statement, which “sets out how any individual can contact us if they believe any of the information held is inaccurate, and we would urge them to do so.” He also said that “all profiles on World-Check are regularly reviewed” and that “it is important to point out that inclusion in World-Check does not imply guilt of any crime.”
Tenuous Terror Ties
The Intercept examined the World-Check entries for roughly 1,300 U.S. citizens labeled with the category “terrorism,” and found dozens who had never actually been convicted of terror-related offenses. In advertisements, World-Check boasts that its screeners go beyond official sanctions or law-enforcement lists to include people and groups who are “reported to be connected to sanctioned parties” or “investigated or convicted” of a variety of crimes. Thomson Reuters claims that information comes from “reputable public domain sources.” For terror-related entries, in particular, it notes that it makes use of tens of thousands of records “that reveal human terror networks.”
But World-Check’s definition of “reputable” seems flexible. Many of the entries for Muslim groups cite right-wing Islamophobic websites. In July, Vice, which also accessed Vickery’s leaked database, identified 15,000 entries that cited Wikipedia.
And, as the publication separately reported in February 2016, World-Check often links to the websites of Steve Emerson, Daniel Pipes, and David Horowitz, all described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “anti-Muslim extremists.”
For instance, the Muslim Students Union at the University of California, Irvine is listed in World-Check as a “Hamas supporter” with a link to an article on Horowitz’s Frontpage Mag about a film screening the group put on in 2008. Current MSU board members contacted by The Intercept were unaware of the controversy, and said that the group’s finances are controlled by the university.
Vice noted that CAIR and its director, Nihad Awad, were listed under “terrorism” by World-Check. The data analyzed by The Intercept includes 14 current or former CAIR staffers or board members who have no terror-related charges or convictions. CAIR, which is one of the leading Muslim advocacy groups in the country, is described by World-Check as a “Hamas-affiliated” organization and tied to the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, a Texas charity convicted of funneling millions to Hamas before it was shuttered in 2001. Awad characterized his profile to Vice as “inaccurate, bigoted garbage.” (A spokesperson for CAIR said that they did not have information to add about the listing.)
CAIR was among 300 plus organizations and individuals listed as unindicted co-conspirators in that trial. They were not charged with any crime, and in 2007 CAIR complained to a judge that publicly naming them as unindicted co-conspirators was an unfair “demonization of all things Muslim” that would taint their reputations. And indeed, years later, CAIR and many other individuals are on the World-Check list apparently only because of that designation.
Among them is Parvez Ahmed, a professor of finance in Florida. He used to be on CAIR’s national board but cut ties with the group in 2008. The CAIR link to the Holy Land case has been used against him in local politics, when he ran, successfully, for his city’s human rights commission, and later during a controversy over a local art exhibit.
“I myself was never named as an unindicted co-conspirator, but it was used by the usual suspects, the anti-Muslim crowd,” Ahmed told The Intercept. “There is this whole circular logic to this attack against Muslim groups — someone cites something and it’s an echo chamber of citations, but they are all single source and based on allegations that just don’t hold up.”
Crundwell, of Thomson Reuters, said that World-Check’s research domains are “led by subject matter experts with deep domain knowledge focused on topics such as sanctions, terrorism and insurgency, organized crime,” and that “blog content” is used only “as a secondary source.” He said that World-Check encourages its users to independently verify the information before taking any action.
Not all the people in the “terrorism” category are Muslim. In addition to right-wing anti-government extremists and anarchists convicted of terrorism-related charges, the list includes some figures publicly associated with the Ku Klux Klan and other white nationalist groups. It also includes animal rights activists who have made controversial statements about the use of violence against animal researchers.
The Intercept’s international partners also found instances of people listed under “terrorism” on the basis of outdated or debunked information. The Central Council of Muslims in Germany and the Belgian League of Muslims were wrongly labeled, as was a German sociologist who was arrested on suspicions of terrorism for writings on urban policy in a widely protested case; he was released without charges in 2007 but remained in World-Check years later. Many former Guantánamo detainees are also listed, including a man named Naquibullah who was about 14 when he was released from the U.S. detention center.
Tom Keatinge, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute, told The Times of London that World-Check “creates a vast amount of redundant work” for banks and authorities looking out for terrorist activity in the financial system. Automated alerts based on World-Check, he said, could be contributing to an onslaught of suspicious activity reports that British banks submit to authorities.
The Problem With PEP
Banks and other institutions do have to take steps to comply with sanctions and international and domestic laws against money laundering and terror financing, which have only grown more numerous and complex since the 9/11 attacks. Thomson Reuters advertises World-Check with warnings about recent fines and settlements against banks for violating sanctions; HSBC’s historic $1.9 billion payment to U.S. authorities to settle money-laundering allegations in 2012 is the most famous example.
“PEP risk is the very real possibility that over breakfast tomorrow morning, you will read that your bank holds the accounts of one of the world’s most corrupt leaders — and you had no idea, and you are being held responsible,” reads a 2008 company white paper aimed at potential clients. So-called “Know Your Customer” efforts, aimed at ferreting out criminal intent, require combing through massive amounts of publicly available data, World-Check notes in a company presentation. That means dealing with “extreme volatility of information” and repeatedly facing a “struggle to ensure accurate information about a customer.”
Thomson Reuters claims that World-Check adds 20,000 profiles a month and updates 40,000. According to a recent brochure, 75 percent of the listings are PEPs — that is, government functionaries and their families or “close associates.” In Thomson Reuters’ 2008 definition, an associate could be an adviser, consultant, colleague, or shareholder.
Additionally, World-Check contains groups and individuals with public profiles that don’t have official PEP status. For instance, World-Check includes many international entities — the IMF, the World Bank, various U.S. government agencies — full of politically prominent people. WikiLeaks and Anonymous are listed, as is Occupy Wall Street (the entry for the amorphous activist movement notes, “members reportedly arrested in Brooklyn, New York”).
Some of the nonprofits and political entities it includes, however, seem arbitrary. The Tibetan Youth Congress, a prominent diaspora organization, is listed with only a link to a 2008 China Daily article in which the Chinese government accuses it of being a terrorist group. (A request for comment went unanswered by the youth group.) Human Rights Watch is listed with no rationale given, beyond a link to 2000 article about a report the group did on the FARC in Colombia. The head of HRW’s Americas division, José Miguel Vivanco, has his own listing, which describes him as “involved in the intents to prosecute former General Pinochet in Chile,” referring to the brutal military ruler who was the subject of hundreds of criminal complaints in his home country, indicted by a Spanish judge, and whose regime was the focus of a national truth commission and a U.S. Senate money-laundering investigation.
“We are surprised and puzzled to find ourselves and Mr. Vivanco in this database and can’t imagine what standards are being applied,” said HRW’s general counsel, Dinah PoKempner.
The Rainforest Action Network, an environmental activist group, is listed in connection with the journalist Jacob Appelbaum, who once worked there, and who is in turn listed for his work with WikiLeaks. (Appelbaum did not respond to a request for comment, but WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange told La Repubblica that he had long been aware that he, Appelbaum, and other WikiLeaks associates were listed in World-Check, which he called “a secret financial blacklist”). A spokesperson for Rainforest Action Network, Chris Herrera, said that the World-Check listing was “alarming to us especially at this moment when dissent and protest are under such scrutiny.”
World-Check is also used by nonprofits in order to screen grantees. Several U.S. government development organizations, such as the Millennium Challenge Corporation, have World-Check subscriptions, according to public contracting documents.
“It’s a part of the nonprofit sector that came about during the [George W.] Bush era,” said a source who works at a U.S.-based charitable foundation. “It was a way of us checking to make sure we weren’t funding terrorism. They used it to blacklist people.”
As a subscriber, the source discovered that her foundation was itself listed. (She requested anonymity because her organization’s work has already suffered through association with its World-Check profile.)
According to World-Check’s privacy statement, individuals may write to Thomson Reuters to request their information and challenge its accuracy. When told about its listing by The Intercept, PETA contacted Thomson Reuters and a spokeswoman said that the group’s information was removed within a day. She added, “We would have demanded its removal long ago had we known about it.”
The foundation staffer said that when her group tried to contact World-Check, the company would not engage.
“I said, ‘This is ridiculous, the info is so bogus,’ and they flat out said no” to taking her organization off. “They said, ‘No, this is public domain info and it’s allowed to be there.’” Years later, still required to subscribe to World-Check, she looked her group up again and it had been removed.
The source said she would still run all potential grantees through World-Check, and “if it was a hit, I usually would say no.” But knowing from experience the sometimes erroneous nature of a listing, she said, “I would verify, I would look at what the links were that they included, I’d go to the website and actually read the link.”
Update: Jun. 25, 2017, 10:30 a.m.
This piece was changed to reflect that Jacob Appelbaum did paid work for the Rainforest Action Network.