A "shadowy" private database that has wrongly linked individuals to terrorist activity is being widely used by British police, intelligence, and the charity regulator, a VICE News investigation has found, amid growing anger among British and European parliamentarians about its effect on people's lives.
The confidential World-Check database profiles individuals and organizations under various categories, using open-source information to uncover their "hidden risk" for government agencies and banks. An adverse profile on the database, which is used by 49 of the 50 top global banks, has been linked to account closures and blacklisting.
The Thomson Reuters-owned company, which binds its subscribers to secrecy about specific use of its service, is part of a rapidly growing yet unregulated $5 billion a year risk mitigation industry which provides intelligence to banks in order to help them avoid assisting money laundering and terrorist financing.
An investigation by VICE News in February revealed that World-Check had profiled 2.7 million individuals and organizations in its classification system, which includes the categories "terrorism" and "Politically Exposed Person" (PEP).
Among the 94,000 "terrorism" profiles found were those of Maajid Nawaz, a British Liberal Democrat politician who founded a counter-extremism think tank, Mohammed Iqbal Asaria CBE, an Islamic finance expert who has advised the World Bank, and the advocacy group Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC).
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VICE News has since learned that World-Check quietly removed the "terrorism" label from Nawaz and deleted Asaria and the PSC's profiles. Nawaz has instructed his lawyer to undertake legal action against World-Check over his "terrorism" designation.
Now, it can be revealed that World-Check is used for criminal investigations by the British law enforcement and intelligence agencies, including London's Metropolitan Police Counter Terrorism Command (SO15), the National Crime Agency and City of London Police, which watches over the financial heartland of the capital.
According to a World-Check spokesperson the contract with law enforcement agencies states the database's intelligence is to be used to "prevent, detect, or investigate any unlawful act" and prevent "dishonesty, malpractice, or seriously improper conduct."
The Charity Commission (the UK's watchdog for the non-profit sector) and the UK's government's Department for International Development (DFID) also hold paid subscriptions to screen charities and aid beneficiaries according to freedom of information disclosures made to VICE News.
The disclosures come amid growing anger among senior members of parliament (MPs) about the confidential profiling of "risky" individuals on so-called watch lists. MPs often appear as PEPs, casting them politicians in a politically sensitive position which could leave them vulnerable to bribery.
Earlier this year, Charles Walker OBE, a senior MP in the ruling Conservative Party, raised protests that certain MPs and their families were being treated like "African despots" after banks pre-emptively closed their accounts with no explanation. In response, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury Harriet Baldwin acknowledged their "enormous frustration."
'World-Check is a shadowy database that has the capacity to blight wholly innocent people's lives'
Now Chancellor George Osborne has promised to remove British parliamentarians from risk databases like World-Check in a forthcoming Bank of England bill. A World-Check spokesperson said the company would continue to monitor and comply with the relevant laws. But how authorities will be able to monitor the compliance of a confidential service like World-Check, which is not open to public scrutiny, is unclear.
Last month the Department for Culture, Media and Sport told Walker that organizations like World-Check are obliged to comply with the Data Protection Act. The Act is enforced by the UK's Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) — an independent body responsible for data protection and freedom of information — which has powers to serve enforcement notices and impose penalties.
An ICO spokesperson told VICE News the Commissioner's Office had received "several complaints" about World-Check over the past few years, but that "none of these had resulted in an investigation." She added: "We will continue to review and respond to any complaints we receive."
"World-Check is a shadowy database that has the capacity to blight wholly innocent people's lives," said Walker, the Conservative MP. "Individuals have no-way of knowing if their name is contained on the database as banks and financial institutions can hide behind "tipping-off" laws to avoid answering customers' queries as to why banking facilities are being withdrawn or refused.
"World-Check is a monster that needs to be tamed," he added.
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Responding to questions about the removal and changes to profiles exposed by the VICE News investigation, a World-Check spokesperson said profiles "are regularly scrutinized, reviewed, and updated as circumstances and official sanctions change." The company declined to discuss the individual profiles, citing data protection laws.
Contradicting this claim, during its investigation VICE News saw several "terrorism" profiles that had not been updated in over five years.
Last month a major mosque in London launched a defamation suit against Thomson Reuters World-Check seeking damages and an apology. Finsbury Park Mosque's bank account was closed by HSBC in 2014 and a year later BBC Radio 4 discovered that World-Check had confidentially kept a "terrorism" profile on the organization.
Its service is used by over 300 government and intelligence agencies, claims World-Check, which has advertised itself at the major global internal state security exhibition, MiliPol. Use of the database by British law enforcement and intelligence agencies will heighten fears over its use as a "tip sheet" in criminal cases, leading to investigations against individuals and organizations wrongly profiled on the World-Check database.
The NCA's Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre has stated that World-Check provided specialist advice and information "to help the team track high-risk suspects and support their work developing lifestyle analysis of travelling offenders…[of] child sexual abuse in the UK."
World-Check's database does not just profile convicted offenders, but also names individuals or organizations "accused, investigated, arrested, charged, indicted, detained, questioned, or on trial" as part of "uncovering hidden risk," its literature says. If somebody has merely been questioned about or accused of crimes, including child sexual abuse, they can be profiled as being risky in that category. They do not need to have been convicted.
'The database [is] used "to inform the bigger picture or as a starting point for cross-reference"'
World-Check claims to use blogs only as a "supporting source" for creation of "terrorism" and other profiles. However, the VICE News investigation found a number of "terrorism" profiles whose allegations were derived solely from conservative blogs, Islamophobic websites, and political organizations.
"Where such allegations are denied this would be recorded in the profile," a World-Check spokesperson explained — but added that "users are advised any negative allegations should be assumed to be denied by the profile subject."
"Sexual exploitation for financial gain, including sexual exploitation of children, is listed by the Financial Action Task Force as a Designated Category of Offense…Therefore financial firms are required to monitor individuals accused of this offense," the spokesperson added.
When asked about its use of the World-Check service to help track suspects, and what it thought about the concerns raised, an NCA spokesperson told VICE News that the database was used "to inform the bigger picture or as a starting point for cross-reference. We never use it as a sole source of information."
Additionally, VICE News asked all UK law enforcement agencies about their use of World-Check in freedom of information requests but nearly all declined to confirm or deny its use. City of London Police, which lists World-Check as a partner on its website, said it would not provide details on its "covert tactics" and "how or what products we use to gather valuable intelligence in our fight against terrorism."
Tasnime Akunjee, a lawyer at Farook Bajwa & Co law firm who represents Finsbury Park Mosque in its legal action against Thomson Reuters World-Check, said that use of the database by counterterrorism forces and police to assist with sensitive and controversial work "can only serve to further erode public confidence" in law enforcement.
'Appalling and actionable infringement of rights and liberties of innocent individuals and organizations'
"The fact that World Check is being used pervasively by sensitive state bodies ranging from SO15 through to DFID is truly shocking. (…) I have no doubt that the use of World-Check has led to appalling and actionable infringement of rights and liberties of innocent individuals and organizations," he said.
The Charity Commission's paid subscription to World-Check has been active since 2009, according to freedom of information disclosures made to VICE News, used as one source to investigate charities about "which the Commission has identified concerns."
The Commission has been accused of taking an increasingly aggressive stance in investigating certain charities. A 2014 study by the UK think tank Claystone found that the Commission placed 55 charities under its "extremism and radicalization" watch list without their knowledge. As with individuals or organizations adversely profiled by World-Check, the affected charities are not made aware of suspicions placed against them.
To what extent World-Check profiles have informed the Charity Commission's actions against charities is unclear. The Commission did not answer questions about its use of the private database to investigate charities or concerns about the database.
DfID has also held a paid subscription to the service since 2014, it told VICE News in a freedom of information disclosure. It is believed that the ministry screens beneficiaries of its assistance using World-Check, but when asked how the database was used and about the concerns relating to it, a DFID spokesperson would not discuss details "for security reasons."
A 2012 study by Oxford University academic Emanuel Schaeublin on charitable giving in Palestine provides an insight into use of World-Check to screen aid recipients. It found that the European Commission (EC, the European Union (EU)'s executive body), a subscriber to World-Check since 2007, used the service to screen families before transferring cash assistance as well as screen board members of beneficiary charities against World-Check's "terrorism" risk list. In the case of a match the recipient would not be informed despite their eligibility for funding being adversely affected.
The EC is facing questions from two Members of European Parliament (MEPs) over World-Check. Jan Albrecht, a Green MEP for northern Germany, and Sophie in 't Veld, a Dutch MEP for the social liberal party Democrats 66, co-authored five parliamentary questions interrogating the Commission over its possible use of the service, stating that it "raises cause for great concern."
The co-authors asked the EC to ensure that innocent individuals and organizations were not profiled as having links to terrorism "by the World Check database and similar initiatives."
They also asked whether the EC or any EU institution's use of the service was in line with the EU Charter of Fundamental rights and data protection legislation. The EC has yet to answer.
Follow Namir Shabibi and Ben Bryant on Twitter: @nshabibi and @benbryant
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