How to tell if you’re on a government watchlist (and how to get on and off the wild ride)

// September 21st, 2016 // Hacking and Security

TSA searching a businessman

Why I felt I was on a government list

People often wonder if their names have somehow made it on the “The List”, that watchlist of US citizens whom the government suspects may be up to something. I would venture to say, the best way to know if you’re on the watchlist would be to recognize how often you find yourself forced into unique situations that fall far beyond the norm.

I run several websites, some of which could be considered controversial, dealing with topics such as government conspiracy, security, foreign governments, survival, chemical science, etc. I also work for a critical infrastructure  company that requires monthly flights to various home offices around the country. A few years ago, I went through a period of time when *every* time I passed through security, I was pulled aside. After more than a year or so of being singled out, you gotta figure your name is on some sort of list.

Ever-the-conspiracist, forever looking over your shoulder

Geeks by nature are often conspiracists. It’s probably because their minds tend to spot deviations in patterns better than most. That doesn’t mean those patterns point to conspiracy of course, but it’s why nerds often lean towards alternative explanations for things.  In my case, this week presented the latest string of oddities – a series of unusual occurrences that on the surface, seemed too remote to be random chance. And they all occurred within hours after the attacks in New York and New Jersey.

First, within hours after the bombings on 9/17, my Internet was shutoff. That’s fairly unusual for my installation. I use AT&T high-speed and may see a downtime of a few hours every year or so. This could have been chance except I was the only person in the neighborhood affected *and* it took AT&T four days to get it back online. That is *highly* unusual. In fact, it’s never taken more than a day to fix some whacky wiring glitch or bad box. This time we were visited by a half-dozen different guys (and I couldn’t help but notice that the first few seemed very nervous) before they finally repaired the connection which turned out to be a “broken wire” in a station about a quarter-mile from my home.

While I waited on AT&T to figure out the problem, I connected via a 4G cellular connection, another connection that I rarely have problems with. This time, I found my machines going offline due to frequent disconnects. It wasn’t until I started tunneling through a VPN that I could get a stable connection that held on for more than a few hours. That’s when I found that my Dark Web .onion website was offline. It hadn’t crashed nor was the service down – the machine had been rebooted and was sitting on the login screen (I purposely require manual starts for the .onion services).

I jump onto another machine to check my tor browser and find the third unusual occurrence. My tor browser was gone, each shortcut graciously telling me no such program existed and offering to remove the icon with one simple click. I searched the harddrive and found no trace of the browser – which by the way, I typically fire up a couple of times each week. By now my mind has switched to full subterfuge mode (“Honey, please, keep those curtains closed!”).

The last straw came the following day when I received a shipment of laboratory equipment. I run a science website for kids and am setting up a lab to conduct chemistry experiment demos. The box arrived covered with tape. I turned it over and found that the end had been cut away and taped over. It wasn’t a small gouge in the cardboard either, the entire end had been neatly cut out leaving an opening a few inches wide that someone had covered up with tape. WTF?  If I request a FOIA on my name will I get a bunch of documents back with my name blacked out?

I don’t necessarily attribute these occurrences as the works of an evil government set on isolating me from the world while they sort things out. However, I will indeed be watching to see if occurrences like this happen to other people during key national emergencies.

How to get on a government watchlist

The inner workings of a watchlist nomination are of course unknown – the government has been extremely secretive about the names on the various watch lists.  However, there are a few well-known ways to get your name on the federal government’s watchlist.  It basically just takes any action that a machine-learning algorithm calculates is outside the norm.

  1. Have a criminal record for terrorist-related activates.
  2. Associate with a known terrorist, terrorist organization, or anti-government consortium.  This includes family members and unfortunately, certain religious organizations.
  3. Make frequent trips to areas or countries known to support terrorism. You only have to raise “reasonable suspicion” that you’re involved in terrorism to make the list.
  4. Have an active membership in an extremist group.
  5. Be male, travel alone, carry no bags, on a one-way trip.
  6. Internet searching for topics related to or attributed to terrorist-type activities.
  7. Make an unusual purchase – large amounts of fuel, makeup that disguises your appearance, unusual construction supplies, electronic components, out-of-the-ordinary farm supplies, flying lessons, etc. – and pay with PayPal, Bitcoin, or a throwaway credit card.
  8. Participate in several activities that alone may be OK but together could trigger a terrorist flag.  For instance, visit hacking websites, post a tirade against the government, build your own fireworks, and join the Tea Party.
  9. Post something on social networks or blogs that raises “reasonable suspicion”.
  10. Hang around (for no reason) and take pictures of a sensitive location.
  11. Make a vindictive person in law enforcement mad at you.  All it takes is a nomination form any number of law enforcement agencies to be put on a list.
  12. Pay cash for large purchases or services that a terrorist would not want traced (e.g. rental storage, rental vehicle, military supplies).
  13. Start a fight on an airplane.
  14. Call this phone number: +49 174 276 6483.  This mobile number was reportedly the personal number of William Binney, the NSA whistleblower.
  15. Have the same name as a known or suspected terrorist.  It may not truly be your name on the list but you’ll still suffer the consequences.
  16. Tell someone you’re a terrorist.  Seriously, all it takes is someone else supplying the government with a potential and if they’re credible, you’re placed on the list.
  17. Read an online article about how to get off a terrorist watchlist.  Sorry but yeah, it you weren’t on the list before, you are now.

How to tell if your name is on a government watchlist

Reportedly, there used to be a way to query the FBI system but that has long been removed from their website.  Today, the only way to find out if your name is on a list is to act on your suspicions.

  1. File for a passport and note if it is delayed.
  2. File an FOIA in your own name and see what comes back.
  3. Book a flight and see if you are prohibited from printing the boarding pass from home.
  4. Book a flight and see if you are pulled aside for a more extensive security check.
  5. Notice if loan applications are denied for no apparent reason.
  6. You keep finding weird malware on your machines (not likely if you’re a geek).
  7. Apply for a security clearance or police certificate and note if the process deviates from the norm.
  8. Check your cellphone system information and become familiar with the cellular towers you connect to during a normal day.  Notice when your phone begins switching to different “towers”.
  9. Buy guns, lots of guns, and see if the process deviates from the norm for your state.  For instance, in Texas, I have never been allowed to purchase a gun and walk right out the door.  I always am hit with the dreaded “three-day wait”.
  10. Book a flight and take note of the marking the TSA pencils in on your boarding pass (reportedly, “SSSS” was used in the past).
  11. Check the U.S. Treasury’s “Specifically Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons” list available on their website.  This is separate from the FBI/TSA watchlist but you can be assured if you name is on the IRS list, it’s on the TSA’s list too.
  12. Get a free copy of your credit report and look for an OFAC (Office of Forieng Assets Control) alert on the report.

How to get off a government watchlist

Of course, if you’re on the watchlist for a valid reason, get used to it.  Otherwise, there is one action you can take to potentially have your name removed from the list.

  1. Try the Department of Homeland Security Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (DHS TRIP).

However, be aware that removal of your name from “the list” can only be done by the agency that put you on the list in the first place.  That means you have to find the agency that nominated you for the list and appeal to them directly.  Yeah, good luck with that.

Sources: Wired, DHS, Wikipedia

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