Friend or foe?

Training and certifying people to search and match names on terrorist and criminal watch lists could boost homeland security and save individuals from being unfairly targeted, according to experts.

People are needed to search names for a wide range of purposes in the federal government including tracking terrorist watch lists, monitoring immigration status, processing visa applications and detecting fraud. On the commercial side, airlines and financial institutions need to check names on documents against watch lists to identify terrorists or their supporters.

As name searchers in the intelligence community retire and agencies look to save money by downgrading those positions, the government runs the risk of losing a much-needed skill set, according to former intelligence officers and linguistic experts.

To fill that gap, officials at Language Analysis Systems Inc., a Herndon, Va.-based provider of name matching and searching software, has stepped up efforts to provide intelligence and law enforcement agencies with advanced training in how to properly search for Arabic, Korean, Chinese and multicultural names.

LAS' technology was used by federal agencies after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks to track the hijackers to their Florida connections. It offers several tools for multicultural name matching such as the Name Reference Library, an interactive encyclopedia of culture-specific information about names and their use, meanings and spelling variation patterns. The tool is a crucial component of the training program LAS offers.

Next month, the company will train and certify personnel with the New England State Police Information Network, which is part of the Regional Information Sharing Systems Program administered by the Justice Department, said John Hermansen, LAS' chief executive officer.

Because there is no way to measure the knowledge and skill set of the people conducting searches, training and certifying them are important activities, Hermansen said. "People should be recognized for their expertise," he added.

"One of the real problems of not having expertise in searching names for different language groups is you don't know what you're not getting," said M. Cordell Hart, a former case officer with the CIA who specialized in Chinese. He also worked with the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network.

What might seem like a simple task is complicated by the fact that naming systems differ significantly from one culture to the next. Names can differ in the order in which parts of the name appear or in the consistency with which they are written in English. For instance, the Arabic name Abdul Rahman Salih could also be listed as Rahman Saleh. And only an expert with training in Chinese would know that the name Qiusu Zhang is the same as Ch'iu-Su Chang.

An altered name or variant on the passport or visa of a suspected terrorist could have dire consequences for homeland security or the tracking of criminal organizations by law enforcement.

"If you can't identify the name properly, everything else [in an investigation] is problematic," said Ken Sanz, a special agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement who specializes in Asian crime organizations.

Sanz trains other police officers in name recognition using LAS' Name Reference Library in addition to other tools. His emphasis is on exposing law enforcement officers to the culture and structure of languages.

LAS takes the same approach to acquainting searchers with Arabic, Chinese or Korean cultures and how they might impact the formation of names. Instructors take the students through the structure of names, the placement of given names and surnames, relationships such as "son of" or "father of," and cultural issues such as what happens to a woman's name if she marries. Participants are then tested on the information to receive certification, said Frankie Patman, director of LAS' linguistics division.

The course usually takes eight hours; however, LAS is condensing it into three and half hours for the New England police network.

Certification is an excellent idea, Hart said. Agencies and businesses need to know what it is it about a name that researchers must understand, he added. "LAS is on the right track, a track that the federal government should be on," he said.

Every name searcher probably has a horror story to tell about the consequences of not having skilled people performing this task, Hart added.

For instance, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now part of the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services) sent him information to inspect during a fraud investigation.

Apparently, a Chinese woman had originally applied for a visa under the last name Chang and filed again under the name Zhang after she had someone assist her. The two names are actually the same, but immigration officials did not know that and were preparing to charge the woman with fraud, Hart said.

Although he is not certified, Sanz supports the idea of training and grading name researchers. At one time, he only had to understand three major ethnic groups. "I've been in law enforcement for 31 years and the world [and names] have become more complex," he said.

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