100k people – including infants – are on Canada’s No Fly List by mistake; this mum is working on a fix
‘In January 2016, we started out as a group of parents whose kids were falsely flagged on Canada’s Secure Air Travel Act watch-list, commonly known as the no-fly list,’ says Khadija Cajee, co-founder of the movement No Fly List Kids. ‘Our goal is for people who are falsely flagged on this list (adults and children) to have the means to have themselves removed.’
Up to 100,000 Canadians are affected by false-positive screenings under Canada’s Passenger Protect Program and routinely banned from taking flights, Khadija says. This is based on a list officially known as the Secure Air Travel Act List (SATAL).
The list is under fire from families who say they have been wrongly flagged in the database because their names or surnames match or resemble those of credible security threats. Canadian human rights lawyer Faisal Bhabha calls the list, ‘analogous to carding in the National Security context’.
The list was constructed in 2007, six years after September 11, and contains thousands of names but no personal unique identifiers – like passport numbers or dates of birth – which would prevent innocent travelers whose names match wanted persons from also being blocked.
While a digital list built to block would-be terrorists from boarding planes might make sense, it can also bring unpleasant consequences to innocent travelers of color.
‘Canadians with Arab or Arab-sounding names are disproportionately captured on this list,’ says Khadija. ‘People from non-racialised backgrounds or uber privileged backgrounds can often go their whole lives without feeling this impact.’
It’s an ordeal Khadija has had personal experience with.
‘My 10-year-old son has been on the No Fly List since birth. We noticed a problem the first time we flew with him – when he was 6 weeks old. A year and a half later, a check-in agent at the airport revealed that the little toddler in the stroller was the reason she had to make a phone call to have us security-cleared for check-in.’
Her son has been pulled aside – not once or twice – but so many times that Khadija has lost count. This must be as emotionally distressing for him as it is for her as his mother.
‘I don’t remember the exact number of incidents to be honest, but yes, it’s happened on numerous occasions,’ says Khadija. ‘Until now he’s been too young to really understand what it all meant. Recently he has started asking more probing questions which we try to answer according to his level of understanding.’
Khadija describes herself as a very ordinary, low-key, curious, and maybe a little boring, introvert. A mother of three kids, she was raised partly in South Africa and partly in Canada thus giving her a front-row seat to the cruelties of apartheid and racial exclusion.
‘From the time I was a child in South Africa, my parents never sheltered us from the evil of apartheid. They made aware of our privilege compared to the indigenous African population. At the same time, they made us aware of the injustice perpetrated against us as “Indians” by the white enablers and enforcers of the Apartheid regime.’
As a result, when she grew older she had a keen interest in the impact of politics on different kinds of people lives. And as hard as Canada tries to be liberal, and as good as it is in many respects, the system is still failing marginalised or racialised people in so many other ways.
Her fight against the errors on the no-fly list is making modest progress.
‘Three and a half years later efforts are paying off. My son, who was six at the time and Deemed High Profile (DHP), is now 10 and hopefully not on an airline watch list for too much longer.’
But problems persist.
Canada’s planned introduction of facial recognition tech at airports has a few blind spots.
‘I am concerned about the failures of airport facial recognition technologies against, again, black or dark-skinned folks,’ Khadija says.
The COVID-19 outbreak has slowed her progress as well. In April, Canadian families who have endured anxiety-inducing airport delays over no-fly list mismatches were slated to be among the first to test a new digital system intended to solve the problem. ‘However, due to the current COVID-19 crisis, resources have temporarily been redirected and the testing will be delayed,’ says Khadija.
Still ears in high places are beginning to listen, much to her delight. Khadija has developed relations with policy makers in the civil service.
‘I am pleased to say they seem to have taken our concerns seriously and seem to be committed to implementing a new system while, with our input, taking time to address biases in the new program,’ she says.
About the writer: Ray Mwareya is an associate editor at The World Ethical Data Foundation. Twitter @rmwareya