Tamerlan Tsarnaev escaped monitoring due to simple misspelling?

Over the past several weeks in particular, there has been much discussion in our data quality community about the costs of poor data quality. Poor customer service, wasted mailings, inefficient delivery service – it often frustrates us to see the issues caused by poor data quality when we all know the importance of resolving those concerns.

Unfortunately, the recent events in Boston may have just demonstrated that our inefficient data management practices may have been partly to blame for the failure to keep tabs on one of the bombers. According to recent reports, Senator Lindsey Graham suggests a possible reason that a suspected terrorist was able to travel abroad to a location with possible ties to terrorist activity could have been due to a simple misspelling.  According to Senator Graham, “The reason we didn’t know he went over to Russia is because his name was misspelled.”

Is it possible?

The world is going to be asking this question a lot over the next few days and yes, it is very possible.  People misspell names and email addresses on a regular basis, either when data is captured or when they are searching for it. In this case though, airlines and the FBI do have software for fuzzy matching against terrorist watch lists, so what went wrong in this case? I guess the software may not have been in place everywhere it needs to be, or maybe the error (be it a typo, deliberate misspelling or phonetic variation) was too different from the correct name to be detected – however good the software, there are always going to be inconsistencies that can’t be picked up without a huge number of “false positives”. If Tamerlan Tsarnaev had a green card but was not a citizen, he would have had to present his green card on re-entry to the USA, but not on exit – is there a system in place to capture and check foreign passport numbers against a watch list when people leave the country? Clearly, if the system has the right capability, immigration and law enforcement officials have an opportunity to question the individual both before travel and on return to the USA.

It’s unfortunate and horrifying that such a tragic event may in part be due to poor data quality. In most cases, we have only minor ramifications such as mail going astray or being duplicated, or longer customer service calls, to prove to  organizations the importance of this very necessary technology. We may never know for sure if a simple misspelling was really to blame for lack of monitoring, but it is clear that data quality and identity resolution has important implications for terrorist watch activities.

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