WHO WATCHES THE WATCHLIST?….Via Atrios, I happened to read this column by Arnaud de Borchgrave complaining about his recent accidental inclusion on TSA’s terrorist watch list. It turned out to be the usual bureaucratic nonsense ? the list has lots of names, you got caught up by mistake, very sorry about that, etc. etc. ? and de Borchgrave should probably count himself lucky that TSA responded to his complaint at all. As near as I can tell, once you get on TSA’s list, most people find it pretty much impossible to get off.

But I did learn something interesting. In explaining how the mixup happened, TSA described how their three interlinked databases work:

Since all three systems operate on an extremely sensitive ‘soundex’ basis, information on other individuals having the same or similar name and/or date of birth as the traveler in question can often be flagged in these systems as ‘near matches’ or ‘tentative hits,’ and cause the innocent traveler to be stopped and questioned.

That certainly explains how so many suburban grandmothers get caught up on TSA’s list. The soundex system, familiar to any genealogist who has searched through old census records, is a way of coding names by sound, so that you can look things up even if a census taker misspelled your ancestor’s name when he came by their house. For example, here is my mother’s name, “Jean Drum,” in soundex:

J500 D650

However, there are lots of other names that match that soundex code. For example, John Darwin. You can play around with your own name here and find out which people you might get confused with sometime in the future.

Luckily for me, there aren’t very many soundex matches for “Kevin,” so I’m probably safe. But mom is taking a vacation this summer, and I sure hope no one named John Darwin does anything suspicious between now and then.