World-Check: Innocent people on commercial global watch list of terrorists and criminals

Working at ArgosIn spring 2017, I brought together an international team of reporters for an investigation into the secret World-Check database, which lists over 2 million people. 

The watch list of “high risk” people and organisations is compiled by Thomson Reuters, and sold to almost all the world’s major banks, police forces, intelligence agencies and non-government organisations.

With access to a copy of the database from late 2014, we found that the list is compiled using media reports and other public sources, without further research or regular updates. Often, information is incomplete, out of date or just plain wrong.

The system is supposed to identify people connected to terrorism and financial crime, as well as senior politicians who banks must monitor for money laundering activity.

People listed on the database could find themselves refused service by banks, while blacklisted charities and businesses may lose out on grants and contracts. Thomson Reuters does not contact the people it adds to its database, and banks are forbidden from telling customers they are on the watch list.

Joint publication exposing World-Check database

On Saturday 24 June 2017, after months of research, we all published our findings simultaneously, in print, online and at the radio. I’m quite proud of the results, and the impact.

Not only did many other media outlets report on our exposure specifically in the Netherlands and Belgium, the matter was brought up in Dutch parliament, and the Belgian, Italian and British Privacy Commissioners started an investigation. The Moslimliga in Belgium takes World-Check to court to get removed from the list. In each of the countries, upon hearing about our investigation, people wrote to World-Check to ask a copy of the data held on them, and to get them corrected or removed.

Also, the Italian Data Protection Authority asked the EU independent data protection authority to put World-Check blacklisting on the agenda. World-Check was discussed at the meeting of the Financial Matters subgroup of the Article 29 Working Group (the representatives of all EU data protection national authorities) held the 5th of July – and is monitoring World-Check since.


Online and in print


Questionable entries

A copy of the database as it stood in 2014 was accidentally leaked on a public internet server, where it was discovered last summer by Chris Vickery, a computer security researcher in the US.

The investigation reveals a range of questionable entries, including:

  • José Miguel Vivanco, a director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), was added to the watch list with a note recording his work on the prosecution of Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean dictator. Dinah PoKempner, the organization’s General Counsel, said: “We are surprised and puzzled to find ourselves and Mr Vivanco in this database and can’t imagine what standards are being applied.
  • The activist group Greenpeace was listed after being fined for accidentally damaging a coral reef, while Occupy Wall Street was blacklisted over alleged links to Anonymous hackers.
  • Muslim individuals and organisations – including the Council on American Islamic Relations, the Central Council of Muslims in Germany and the Belgian League of Muslims — were listed in the terrorism category on the basis of dubious claims including some drawn from internet hate sites.
  • The whistle-blower Chelsea Manning was added to the ‘financial crime’ category shortly after her arrest for passing information to WikiLeaks.
  • Opposition politicians in countries with poor human rights records, including Sri Lanka and Eritrea, were blacklisted on the basis of false allegations by their governments.
  • Former Guantanamo detainees Haji Faiz Mohammed and Naqib Ullah remained on the watch list even after being released and cleared.
  • Delphine Boël, the unrecognised daughter of the former King of Belgium, blamed the listing for the closure of her bank accounts in 2012.
  • A potato farmer in the Netherlands was listed as a potential money laundering risk after serving on a provincial council.

Tomaso Falchetta, a legal officer at Privacy International, said: “The risk of discriminating against individuals, groups, and communities is very high.”

Willem Debeuckelaere, the Belgian privacy commissioner, said there were multiple issues of concern with the World Check database, which he would be discussing with his counterparts across the EU.

Thomson Reuters previously apologised in court to London’s Finsbury Park Mosque, which it had wrongly listed in the terrorism category.  Lawyers for the mosque say claims from others are likely to follow.

David Crundwell, Senior Vice-President at Thomson Reuters, said: “World-Check has a clear privacy statement available on its website 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 said that inclusion in World-Check did not imply guilt, and users of the list were told to verify the information themselves before acting on it. He claimed the list was regularly updated.

The Team

Eveline LubbersEveline Lubbers PhD is an independent investigator and one of the founders of the Undercover Research Group and Spinwatch. She is the author of Secret Manoeuvres in the Dark, Corporate and Police spying on Activists (Pluto, 2012) and the initiator & contributing editor of Battling Big Business: Countering Greenwash, Front Groups and Other Forms of Corporate Bullying (2002).

Tom WillsTom Wills is Data Journalism Editor at The Times of London. He leads a small unit of investigative data journalists, who use computational techniques to find stories hidden in data.

Cora CurrierCora Currier is a staff reporter with The Intercept, a non-profit news organisation based in New York that covers national security, politics, civil liberties, the environment, international affairs, technology, criminal justice, the media, and more.

Jasmin Klofta Jasmin Klofta is an investigative journalist working for ARD Panorama and the NDR Ressort Investigation (research cooperation with the Süddeutsche Zeitung). She focuses on politics, surveillance and digital business.

Stefania MauriziStefania Maurizi works for La Repubblica. This is the Italian leading newspaper, belonging to the Leading European Alliance, set up by seven European newspapers, from Die Welt (Germany) to Le Figaro (France), producing quality journalism.

Lars BovéLars Bové, investigative journalist and coordinator of investigative journalism at De Tijd, a Belgian newspaper that focuses on business and financial news, but also politics.

Sanne Terlingen Sanne Terlingen works as an investigative journalist. For OneWorld, a multimedia platform specialised in reporting on cross-border issues such as migration, climate change and the war on terror. And for Argos, the main investigative reporting radio program on Dutch public radio. It has a long history of exposing abuse of power and holding authorities to account.
The investigation was supported by the

Lobbying, Spying & Legal Threats. Energy Giants & Gov’t Joint Efforts to Undermine Protest.

Update 21 February. Not just lobbying, also spying! That’s what I wrote yesterday – E.ON did not only lobby the government for harsh sentences, they both spied on the climate activists as well and exchanged intelligence between them. Mark Kennedy was just one of many players in this game. Within a few hours of publishing my blog, EDF sued @NoDashForCash £5m in damage claims for the cost of occupying a West Burton chimney. Again, there is evidence of spying, even more so, EDF France was effectively convicted for hacking  the computer network of Greenpeace UK.

The connection between the gathering of intelligence and corporate counter-strategy is at the heart of my book Secret Manoeuvres. A corporation does not spy on its critics just to know what is going on: it does so to be prepared and to defend itself!
The joint efforts to undermine protest are worrying. Adam Ramsay came to the same conclusion in his Bright Green blog today, I could not have put it better:

What we are up against is not one company. The line between corporation and state is greyer and greyer as previously public companies turn round and eat their former owners. We are up against the entwined power of a growing energy/state complex: an ever stronger network which is squeezing the democracy out of our country and the life out of our planet – or, at least, which will if we let them.

Not just lobbying, also spying!

Energy giant E.ON repeatedly lobbied the government over the sentencing of activists disrupting the company’s power plants, pressing for ‘dissuasive sentencing to discourage similar such incidents in the future’, the Guardian revealed this week .

The lobbying involved the highest echolons: the chairman and CEO of E.ON UK at the time and the then-energy secretary Ed Miliband and his staff, details released to Greenpeace under the Freedom of Information act show. The two met after the lax sentencing of eco-activists engaged in direct action at Kingsnorth,  on the day a group of environmentalists would be sentences for aggravated trespass at Ratcliffe-on Sour – yet another coal-powered station owned by E.ON.

However, this high level meeting was just the final stage of close cooperation between the energy company and the government. The signs of joint efforts to undermine environmental protest began to emerge a few years earlier. Continue reading “Lobbying, Spying & Legal Threats. Energy Giants & Gov’t Joint Efforts to Undermine Protest.”

Thanks to a friend in Paris, I discovered someone who is working on Secret Manoeuvres issues too. It is a journalist called Emmanuel Fansten who has recently written a book called:

Les nouveaux barbouzes, Enquête sur la privatisation de l’espionnage

barbouze is slang for para-military force, secret agent or spy in French, referring to beards (barbes) or false moustaches often worn to hide the face, so the title translates into something like The New Spies, Research on the privatisation of spying.

The author is on Twitter @efansten, mostly en Français though…
and here are his articles on

I have not got a copy yet, but here are some articles on the book, all in French! Continue reading “Les Nouveaux Barbouzes, enquête sur la privatisation de l’espionnage”

What do you expect from the workshop in Essex?

Preparing the workshop in Essex, discussing this with Tom Anderson from Corporate Watch: there is just so much to talk about!
Since the workshop as a format implies input from those who join, we may as well make it interactive from the very start. So, there you go: what would you expect from a workshop on corporate and police spying on activists? And what would your own contribution be?

  • I could talk through one of the case studies featuring in Secret Manoeuvres, just to get an idea.
  • Explain how the research I do is different from investigative journalism (“I start where the papers stop”).
  • We could address the issue of what is needed to understand the issue of corporate spying: case studies, time lines, following the money, the people/companies behind it.
  • Address the question of approaching corporate & police spying on activists within the larger context of so called ‘issue management’, reputation, globalisation, undermining of protest.
  • We can talk about infiltrator’s role in the undermining of social movements.
  • How to balance between talking about research and talking about spies?

Do we expect our participants to read Secret Manoeuvres in the Dark first?   ->-> Purchase it now – or get a copy in Essex! <-<-

Let me know, I’ll open the comments, tweet your feedback to @evelinelubbers, or use the Secret Manoeuvres mailbox at

N.B. If you can’t come to Essex, I can come to you – we might turn this into a tour!

Secret Manoeuvres, Shell and Kiobel

This week saw a landmark hearing before the Supreme Court in Washington DC. Widow Esther Kiobel accuses the oil giant’s parent company, Royal Dutch Shell, of complicity in the murder and torture of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Nigerian activists. They were executed by the Nigerian military government after protesting Shell’s exploration and development in the Niger Delta in 1995.

Essentially a case of relatives seeking to hold an oil company accountable for its deeds, it now centers on the question whether survivors of human rights violations in foreign countries can bring lawsuits against corporations in U.S. courts under a 1789 U.S. law called the Alien Tort Statute. See Twitter on #Kiobel for different takes on this hearing.

Shell has a long history of undermining protest. The company applies an interesting mix of PR strategies, denials and greenwash exercises on the one hand and the dirty tricks and undercover operations on the other. For Shell,  or so it seems, cooperation with a military government and police Special Forces in an African country is just one step beyond involvement in private intelligence agencies and cybersurveillance in Europe and the US. It’s all part of the game. Continue reading “Secret Manoeuvres, Shell and Kiobel”

Mark Kennedy in Corporate Intelligence

Originally posted at my blog , while working on the book.


Mark Kennedy is now selling his experience as an undercover agent within ‘extreme left political and animal right groups’ to the highest bidder.  His apparent move into corporate spying is yet another sign of the increasingly blurred boundaries between public and private forces in undermining protest.

Kennedy’s LinkedIn profile –  first spotted by Indymedia early June – is clarifying in many ways.  On a personal front, it strips away any last doubt about his position. He is not a turned agent, as he suggested just after he was first exposed in the mainstream media. Nor is he a lonely soul longing for his true love and missing his activist friends, as he claimed in a documentary devoted to his double play.

Kennedy claims to now work as a consultant for the US based Densus Group, a security firm specialised in risk analysis and assessing threats from protest groups and domestic extremism. Densus serves both companies and law enforcement – a prime example of the blurred boundaries mentioned above. Today its focus is on containing the Occupy movement. Continue reading “Mark Kennedy in Corporate Intelligence”

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