Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Modest Proposal In The Interests of National Security

The foiled Christmas terrorist attack--the system worked!-- highlighted an ongoing peeve of mine. How many ways can you mangle, make up, or imagine you will see in the press the spelling of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's name? There are conventions for transliterating non-romanic languages into English, but they still give us a plethora of spelling options for, in this case, Arabic names.

Look at the high fashion, Italiana-guarded, Barbie-curl coiffed titular head of Libya. According to Wikipedia:

Because of the lack of standardization of transliterating written and regionally pronounced Arabic, Gaddafi's name has been transliterated in many different ways into English and other Latin alphabet languages. An article published in the London Evening Standard in 2004 lists a total of 37 spellings of his name, while a 1986 column by The Straight Dope quotes a list of 32 spellings known at the Library of Congress.[83] This extensive confusion of naming was used as the subject for a segment of Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update in the early 1980s.[citation needed]

In 1986, Gaddafi reportedly responded to a Minnesota school's letter in English using the spelling "Moammar El-Gadhafi".[84] The title of the homepage of algathafi.org reads "Welcome to the official site of Muammar Al Gathafi".[85]

"Muammar Gaddafi" is the spelling used by Time magazine, BBC News, the majority of the British press and by the English service of Al-Jazeera.[86] The Associated Press, CNN, and Fox News use "Moammar Gadhafi". The Edinburgh Middle East Report uses "Mu'ammar Qaddafi" and the U.S. Department of State uses "Mu'ammar Al-Qadhafi". The Xinhua News Agency uses "Muammar Khaddafi" in its English reports.[87]

So, Gaddafi is a guy who wants everyone in the room to know who he is and that he is there. Were it up to him (and, unfortunately, oft times it is) trumpets would blare and pigeons would fly every time he made an entrance, and we can still document 30~40 different open source methods of spelling his name.

Now suppose that you're just some schmuck that wants to infil the US--or US airspace, anyway--in order to blow up innocent civilians, cause significant property damage, and generally terrorize as much of the US population as you can. With a name like Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, how many different spelling variations can you come up with in an effort to thwart the various and sundry bureaucracies charged with keeping your sorry ass out? Even if there were, for example, a couple of small irregularities between your hand-printed immigration card, and your passport, and your driver's license, and your visa card, and your actual visa, would an English-speaking official either notice or think it was significant? Suppose Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had had the mission to infiltrate the US and put boots on the ground for a period of time before executing his plan (like, say, spend some months in a Florida flight school before being ready or able to execute the mission)? If he could get into the US, he could drive from coast to coast, stopping at motels to rest or see the sights, without ever using the same spelling twice. Any bureaucracy, or any ad hoc conglomeration of bureaucracies ostensibly collaborating to catch the guy, suffers a workload that expands geometrically over space and time trying to track the guy down, and that's without him employing any other countermeasures than playing scrabble with his name.
All applications for non-immigrant visas (you can see one here) are written exclusively in English. In fact, the Visa application is topped with big red letters that say, in part,"Your answers must be in English and must use English characters." I can understand the philosophy that in order to come to the States, you should at least have enough facility with the language to fill out the paperwork. Of course, this is not the philosophy upon which DOS bases its requirement to actually fill out the form. Any non-English speaking individuals seeking to fill out a visa can go to the local Embassy or Consul and get assistance filling out the form. So, if your name originates from the Arabic alphabet (or the Cyrillic, or Kanji, or Hangul, or...), then your name in the English alphabet is pretty much whatever approximation you choose that more or less is phonetically close enough. Does this seem like an administrative weakness that can be exploited?

Arabic is tough to learn; to even be a competent "basic" speaker, you have to learn a whole new alphabet. The Army has a whole curriculum based off a transliterated English alphabet; the transliterated alphabet only aids in phonetic rote memorization. Even this many years after 9/11, it is probably too much to expect that our alphabet soup of bureaucracies would have enough competent Arabic linguists to manage even the "by exception" guys on various watch lists, let alone all the Arabic native speakers who come into contact, for whatever reason, with our US Government.

So, what if we had all applicants fill out a bubble sheet, like unto that which Americans fill out for any standardized academic test (e.g., the SAT), possibly linked in with some sort of biometrics, and that gets translated into a standardized bar code that code be scanned, databased, and disseminated electronically.Above is Gaddafi's name in such a standardized format.* It couldn't take too long to 'gin up some code that would enable us to digitally track his comings and goings in the US--I mean, if he's not allowed to pitch his big tent in Central Park. If every applicant/immigrant with a name not derived from the English alphabet used this, it would probably make everyone's life easier. A guy named Abdulmutallab on the watch list couldn't spoof the system by writing Abdel Mu'talib. When he did apply for a visa, every one in government with a responsibility to safeguard the homeland (which should be everyone in Government) would be able to bounce his standardized name off of his own lists. Failure to properly render one's name in one's native language when one chooses to apply for any permissions or dispensations from the USG would mean no further access to our government (or our country) without a lengthy appeal process to determine why you bungled your name in your own native tongue.

An added benefit is that this isn't even "profiling." We just want to do you, Mr. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab the courtesy of getting your name right. So that we can better and more efficiently act on your request for a visa (driver's license, whatever). The fact that we can better and more effectively shithammer you if you're a terrorist, well, that's just a happy coincidence.

*And Gaddafi's name proves the point. My own facility with Arabic ranges from poor to not-quite-as-poor, depending on how much I'm using it. As it's been years since I've read any Arabic press with Gaddafi's proper name in it, this was a surprise: If pronounced exactly as spelled in Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), Gaddafi's name is more like QaTHafi. I'm reasonably sure the proliferation of D's rather than Th's in the middle of the spelling of his last name is due to a variation between MSA and Libyan dialect. So, even if a guy is making an honest effort to accurately transliterate his own name, the difference between the Arabic spoken and written word can throw a spanner into the works.


  1. Really interesting, good point!

    I really do follow your blog but have a heck of a time posting a comment, let's see if this one goes through.

    Best wishes for 2010!


  2. I can't believe all of this hysteria over this Richard Reid (2001) "shoe bomber" II copycat episode. He's arrested. Try him. Convict him. Put 'im in prison to rot away for the rest of his miserable life.

    In the meantime, let's just get with the terms of coping with and living in the 21st Century. Republicans, and maybe the ACLU, are against full-body scanners at airports. But I'm not.

  3. Vig,
    I'm sure he'll be tried, convicted, and incarcerated. The important question, I think, is: will he be exploited? How, when, where, and by whom this guy was turned into a weaponized advert for BVDs is important. Right now, he looks like a goober whose tighty-whitey's failed to detonate. Had his panties actually exploded, I think we would be hearing an entirely different narrative and threat assessment. Unfortunately, from what I've heard, he's lawyered up.

  4. What about just having all names written using Unicode?

    Wouldn't that solve a lot of these problems?

  5. This is an important issue, and I think you have a good proposal. It's ludicrous that our national security depends on everybody transliterating a complex Arabic name the same way because, as you said, there is no standard for transliteration.

    I'm an American living in Jordan. When I was applying to university here, I probably spelled my name 5 different ways in Arabic on all the various forms. I could never remember how I spelled it the time before. Also, Arabs don't use middle names... they use their father's name. On half my forms I wrote my middle name in that blank, and on half my forms I wrote my father's name.

    In short, a transliterated name is a pretty bad way to identify somebody.

  6. can't we just RF tag them all? yeah, there's be some logistics involved, and some whining, but it would solve the problem....

    /white smoke