A massive, ever-growing database used by the world’s largest banks to track terrorism financing and other crimes has compiled millions of names from unverified sources – including scandal sheets and search engine results.

The World-Check database adds 25,000 names every month to its massive risk database, used by 49 of the world’s 50 largest banks to monitor possible financial, regulatory and reputational liabilities. Over three million people are currently on the list – many not convicted of any crime, some not even aware they are suspected of one. 

Getting on the list is easy – employees scour publicly available sources, from court records to search engine results, and apparently make little effort to verify what they find. An investigation by Al Jazeera found hundreds of thousands of Muslim names, some seemingly absurd. In one example, retired Egyptian football player Mohamed Aboutrika was designated a “terrorist” after the Egyptian government added him to its domestic terror list for supporting the country’s first democratically-elected president, Mohamed Morsi, after the latter was overthrown. 

Beyond the overpopulated terrorist databases, the Qatari outlet found that World-Check scours the scandal-sheets and tabloid newspapers of Israel and other countries for names, though its own website claims “research is sourced from reputable public domain sources.” Indeed, World-Check boasts its database includes not only convictions but “person accused, investigated, arrested, charged, indicted, detained, questioned, or on trial” for a laundry list of crimes including everything from bribery and corruption to slave labor, “cheating,” or “environmental crimes.”

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A handful of Muslim organizations, including Finsbury Park Mosque and the Palestinian Return Centre in London, have sued World-Check for including them on its terrorism list, which in the mosque’s case resulted in the freezing of its bank accounts. Both reached settlements and had their names withdrawn, and a spokesperson from World-Check told Al Jazeera that any entity believing itself to be wrongly included had the right to request their file and inquire about their status. However, most ‘non-terrorists’ don’t suspect themselves of being on such a list until something goes wrong – and when they’re stopped at an airport for extra questioning, they’re unlikely to think to blame a private-sector open-source reputation-protection scheme.

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A legal strike against such ominous coordination of public and private sector surveillance was reversed on Monday, when a US appeals court overturned a September verdict declaring the FBI’s terrorist screening database unconstitutional. Calling the criteria for inclusion on the 1.2 million-strong list “reasonably clear,” the Ninth Circuit Court panel of federal judges dismissed concerns about arbitrary enforcement. Under current policy, any American intelligence agency can suggest a person be added to the list, without providing intelligence to back up their nomination or explaining their reasoning. The list is shared with hundreds of private sector entities, most likely including World-Check.

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