In 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 Often, information is incomplete, out of date or just plain wrong.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.
- Duizenden Nederlanders op gelekte zwarte lijst – OneWorld, Sanne Terlingen, Huub Jaspers and Eveline Lubbers
- Auf der schwarzen Liste der Banken – Süddeutsche Zeitung, Jasmin Klofta
- Flimsy evidence and fringe sources land people on secretive banking watchlist – The Intercept, Cora Courier
Online and in print
- 16.000 Belgen op grootste zwarte lijst ter wereld – De Tijd, Lars Bové and Emmanual Vanbrussel
- La grande schedatura: oltre due milioni di persone tra i soggetti a rischio per banche e intelligence – Repubblica.it, Stefania Maurizo
- Duizenden Nederlanders op gelekte zwarte lijst – Argos, NPO1 Radio, Sanne Terlingen, Huub Jaspers en Eveline Lubbers
- Unschuldig auf der schwarzen Liste – ARD Tagesschau, Jasmin Klofta
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.
Eveline 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 Journalismfund.eu.