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Exclusive: Secret Blacklist Grows Even After Journalists Placed on 'Terror' List Are Paid Off

Thomson Reuters' World-Check apologised and compensated prominent British journalists for secretly listing them as terrorists, but VICE has found the service has also been profiling trade unionists and animal rights activists.
Maajid Nawaz on LBC

VICE can exclusively reveal that a high profile radio host who has advised numerous Prime Ministers, and a journalist who the government has consulted on anti-terror measures, have been paid damages after being profiled on the "terror" list of a secret database, "World-Check", which is used by banks and intelligence agencies.

VICE can also reveal:

  • Animal rights activists have been profiled on a "terror" list.
  • Trade Unionists were secretly profiled in practices that the TUC says has "echoes of the blacklisting scandal".
  • Experts and MPs are warning that loopholes in the new data-protection bill could make the database exempt from oversight.
  • Mortgage lenders are using the database, meaning being profiled on it could be even more disruptive than previously thought.
  • A Trade Union has slammed the Information Commissioner for turning a "blind eye".


World-Check is a database that profiles the hidden risk of major charities, activists and mainstream religious institutions. Last year, a VICE News investigation unearthed terror profiles on LBC radio presenter Maajid Nawaz and on British-Palestinian journalist and academic, Azzam Tamimi, in the commercial database.

The confidential "risk intelligence" service is marketed by Thomson Reuters as "an early warning system for hidden risk". However, VICE News found that in addition to being used by 49 of the top 50 banks, the subscription-only service is widely used by British police and intelligence for investigative purposes.

The 20-page-long profiles on Nawaz and Tamimi – which have now been deleted – were created over 15 years ago and placed in World-Check's "terrorism" category. The profiles cite reports from Islamophobic websites and conservative blogs, including Militant Islam Monitor and the now defunct MoonbatMedia, to support the terror accusation.

Neither Nawaz nor Tamimi were aware profiles were kept on them and widely shared with governments and banks, despite Tamimi having repeatedly had his bank accounts shut with no explanation.

In addition to removing Nawaz's profile after VICE News' story, Thomson Reuters has now paid "significant defamation damages to compensate for the harm that has been caused to Nawaz's personal and professional reputation", said the anti-extremist advocacy organisation, Quilliam, which Nawaz chairs. Tamimi received £15,000 (approximately $20,000 USD).


In a statement that it sent to customers earlier this month, Thomson Reuters said: "Mr Nawaz's World-Check profile had included him in the 'Terrorism' category and we accept that this categorisation was made in error. We corrected this error on 27th April 2016 and removed Mr Nawaz from that category. We have apologised to Mr Nawaz for the error and apologise to our subscribers for any misunderstanding."

Commenting on the settlement, Nawaz said, "Throughout these negotiations, Thomson Reuters World-Check have proven obstinate, argumentative, ignorant of basic legal classifications and oblivious to the harm they have caused me and my work through their defamatory list.

He continued, "Frankly, I think this database should be shut down. It breaches data protection, it is defamatory and is totally unreliable. I advise their remaining corporate customer base to think twice before subscribing to it."

Maajid Nawaz (Photo courtesy of Quilliam International)

After learning of his terrorism profile, Nawaz instructed Seddons law firm to pursue a case of defamation against Thomson Reuters.

Commenting, Thomson Reuters Corporate Affairs interim Senior Director, Patrick Kerr, said, "Our World-Check product aggregates data from reliable and reputable public domain sources – official sanctions lists, law and regulatory enforcement lists, government sources and trustworthy media publications – to help organisations fulfil their due diligence obligations and identify potential financial and related crime."


He added, "World-Check makes it clear to its customers that the inclusion of an individual on World-Check should not automatically be taken to draw any particular inference (negative or otherwise) about them. Where the profile contains negative allegations, it should be assumed that such allegations are denied and that the accuracy of the information found in the underlying media sources should be verified with the profile subject."

By paying Tamimi off, Thomson Reuters staved off legal action for claims of defamation and misuse of data. It also committed to notify Tamimi if it established another profile on him – an unusual undertaking, since it does not normally notify those it profiles.

In 2004-5, Tamimi mobilised and aided the British government, including the police and MI5, in its efforts reclaim Finsbury Park Mosque from "hardliners". Unknown to him, he had been profiled under "terrorism" by World-Check in a now-deleted profile which claimed he was an "alleged suicide bombings advocate and extremist". The irony of being profiled as an alleged extremist by Thomson Reuters while helping MI5 reclaim a mosque from men he calls extremist "thugs" is not lost on him. "It's highly unprofessional. It's really demeaning for Reuters to do this," he said.

Speaking as a former senior lecturer, Tamimi noted that "if you were a university professor supervising a student doing research and the student comes up with such nonsense you'd throw them out".


"Reuters is something we thought of as so respectable and high calibre… it's a shame on Reuters. They should admit this was a major blunder on their part."

Tamimi's lawyer, ITN Solicitors Head of Public Law Ravi Naik, believed his case showed the consequences of a terrorism listing were "stark".

"Information and data has the power to transform an individual's life, without their knowledge or consent," he said.

Despite the ongoing controversy surrounding the risk intelligence service, the amount of terror profiles now numbers over 100,000.


News of the settlements paid to Nawaz and Tamimi comes amid growing concern from MPs and human rights advocates about the current draft of the UK Data Protection Bill, which they say could further loosen rules governing World-Check's use of data on individuals.

Ben Hayes, an independent consultant on data protection and financial surveillance, believes that as drafted the Data Protection Bill would allow some private sector organisations to seek exemption from data protection obligations – meaning laws about how they use people's data simply would not apply.

"World-Check will be able to cite this exemption, claiming it's performing a law enforcement function and therefore exempt from the Bill under Schedule 2," he said. "They would be under no obligation to inform you that they hold your data – or consider you a crime risk – and would be free to share it across the world. You would have no right to access your records, object to the processing or seek any form of redress in the event that the data they hold is false, inaccurate or misleading."


Labour frontbencher and MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, Chi Onwurah, said, "This is a further illustration of the state of confusion this government has left us in. We don't know who owns or controls our data – and their so-called 'Data Protection' Bill is only going to make these sorts of abuses easier. We need a progressive ownership framework for data and we need to ensure UK citizens have the right of redress against any inaccurate information held on them."

Thomson Reuters spokesperson Kerr explained that World-Check was "committed to helping the financial services industry fight against financial crime through the use of data, analytics and tools… Thomson Reuters is registered with the UK Data Protection regulator, the ICO, and meets EU data protection standards." He added that the company would continue to monitor proposed changes to all relevant legislation in relation to World-Check.

In its privacy statement, World-Check says it does not need to seek the consent of individuals it creates profiles on using sensitive personal data. It does, however, invite concerned individuals to contact them in order to request a copy of their profile. However, Hayes explained that individuals would not know they were profiled because of confidentiality obligations on World-Check's clients.

World-Check profiles seen by VICE warn subscribers that "unless you are under a legal or regulatory obligation to do so, this profile and World-Check's identity should not be disclosed".


Hayes added, "Data protection law actually requires individual consent or a statutory legal basis to process 'sensitive data', which includes information on political activities, trade union membership and criminal proceedings, so World-Check should already be informing people themselves and giving them a right of reply."

Tamimi's lawyer, Naik, said Tamimi "was only able to get redress for the profile and understand its potential consequences after asking for the information held on him". Initially, Thomson Reuters told Tamimi it did not hold a profile on him.

"Where this information leads to profiling with profound consequences, the case illustrates the need for transparency and accountability for decision making. Individuals need to have the right to inspect, correct and dispute inaccurate data. The importance of those rights are taking increasing public concern," he continued.

Thomson Reuters spokesperson, Kerr, said, "The information in World-Check is made available on a subscription basis only to those who require it to carry out due diligence or other screening activities in accordance with their legal or regulatory obligations or risk-management procedures designed to combat financial crime…"

In contrast with previous instructions to subscribers, Kerr said World-Check now recommends they "notify their customers that they are intending to conduct a check against the World-Check database prior to conducting such checks".


Use of the risk intelligence database is linked to a growing wave of bank account closures and blocked transactions, as banks increasingly "de-risk" their operations to avoid mammoth US Treasury fines. An Economist report found charities and poor migrants were the hardest hit, with two-thirds experiencing financial problems such as delayed transfers or account closures.

Another report, commissioned by the Financial Conduct Authority, found that in the three years prior, banks had closed accounts at an accelerated rate, with two large UK banks cancelling as many as 1,000 personal accounts and 600 corporate accounts a month. Banks were also shutting customers out of lending, it said.


In addition to banks and government agencies, VICE has learned that mortgage lenders are also screening potential clients against World-Check's database in order to meet increasingly demanding regulatory requirements of the EU's Anti Money Laundering Directive.

Tamimi, his wife and his business had their accounts closed by three separate banks, Barclays, HSBC and the Jordanian Arabi Islami bank, between 2008 to 2014. Unknown to him, Tamimi's had a terror profile on the World-Check database since 2001.

"The first time, from Barclays, I was really surprised, especially that they didn't explain why they were closing down my accounts," Tamimi said. Barclays said Tamimi could not appeal and asked him not to try to open another account, he said, adding that "the language was if I had been convicted in a court of justice for heinous crime". Only, this court offered no chance for appeal.


Even in 2005, when World-Check was a fledgling risk intelligence database, one Barclays Director called it an "essential" screening tool for the bank's business relationships. Its Group Head of Compliance and Regulatory Affairs said at the time, "For certain parts of our business portfolio, World-Check is an essential tool in our KYC [know your client] procedures. We place great value on the service as well as its development since its original launch."

Asked whether Barclays used World-Check to screen Tamimi and whether it would now undertake a review of his account closure, a spokesperson responded, "We never comment on client matters."

Tamimi opened a new account with HSBC, but the experience was to repeat itself. In July of 2014, HSBC wrote to Mr Tamimi and his wife, giving them two months' notice of account closure. "After a review of your relationship with HSBC, we have taken the decision that we no longer wish to provide you with banking facilities and are closing your account," the letter read.

Though the correspondence gives no reason for the account closure, it unequivocally states that the bank had taken a "final decision" to close the account and could not be challenged. Moreover, it asked Tamimi and his wife to "refrain from making any application to open accounts with us or indeed, any part of the HSBC Group…"

"I realised this was something big."

Tamimi says the account closures without explanation or opportunity for appeal left him feeling "alienated" and his wife "distressed". He says his businesses, which had their accounts shut down twice, were impacted by the closures.


Upon hearing that other colleagues and organisations also suffered account closures by HSBC, Tamimi said that was when "I realised this was something big. Because they closed accounts and organisations of individuals, most of whom I happen to know."

Though Tamimi was never able to obtain an explanation for the account closures, he said that one employee of the Arabi Islami bank in Jordan confided that his accounts were closed because his name "was on a terrorism list of some sort". The bank's management subsequently denied any knowledge of it, he claimed.

Barclays and HSBC are both subscribers to World-Check, though neither bank would confirm whether it used the service in taking the decision. In light of World-Check's settlement with Tamimi and the removal of his profile, VICE asked HSBC whether it would review its decision to close his account.

An HSBC spokesperson said: "HSBC has a moral and regulatory obligation to have systems and controls in place to manage financial crime risk. As part of managing this risk we periodically review our customer relationships and in doing so we gather information from a wide range of sources and take a number of factors into consideration."

Nawaz and Tamimi's payoffs come amid mounting legal cases against Thomson Reuters for wrongful profiling. Tasnime Akunjee, a solicitor at ‎Farooq Bajwa & Co, said his firm was currently handling over two dozen claims against the company for wrongful profiling.


Use of the World-Check database is not just limited to banks and government agencies. It is also used by employment agencies who screen applicants, such as HireRight, which conducts over 12 million background checks annually in 240 countries.


VICE's new findings, that World-Check has also profiled trade unionists, is for British trade unions a grim reminder of the recent British construction industry scandal. Last year, 250 construction workers received £10 million after being secretly blacklisted by The Consulting Association, in a secret commercial list containing worker's names, political views, competences and trade union activities.

TUC Deputy General Secretary Paul Nowak said World-Check's practices "has echoes of the blacklisting scandal in the construction industry, which saw hundreds of hard-working builders denied jobs simply because they were union activists. That sordid practice saw careers wrecked, and ultimately resulted in millions of pounds paid out in compensation."

One profile created by World-Check on the late GMB union president Mary Turner lists her personal details and political affiliations in a profile that runs 28 pages. Mary Turner has been described as a "true giant" of the trade union movement. She was a "trailblazer" who organised poorly paid and badly treated dinner ladies, campaigned for free school meals for children and fought the far-right National Front.


In labelling Turner a "politically-exposed person" (PEP), World-Check was indicating to its clients that she was a higher risk for potential involvement in bribery and corruption.

Similarly, World-Check labelled former TUC Sarah Veale CBE as a PEP in 2012, by virtue of being a Board Member of the Health and Safety Executive. However, as with Turner, Veale was not notified that she was profiled as a person exhibiting greater risk.

World-Check also profiles trade unions involved in "regularly mobilising large groups of people engaged in industrial unrest", according to an internal document seen by VICE.

"The definition of PEP is independent of services such as World-Check," Thomson Reuters spokesperson Kerr responded, noting that regulations required financial firms to conduct customer due diligence checks on such individuals. He added, "It is also important to note that inclusion in World-Check does not imply guilt of any crime."

Last year, Tory MPs who had been profiled as PEPs in World-Check complained they were being treated like "African despots" after their bank accounts were shut. Conservative MP Charles Walker told VICE News, "World-Check is a monster that needs to be tamed."

In the eyes of banks and other agencies conducting due diligence, Turner and Veale's public image may have outweighed any adverse effect from their profiles on World-Check. But for GMB Legal Director, Maria Ludkin, the creation of a risk profile on her without her knowledge was scandalous.


"The fact that our recently deceased and much respected President – Mary Turner – has had data stored about her without her knowledge and for uses that remain obscure is an outrage," said Ludkin. "Collecting, storing and selling information about political activity and trade union membership is exactly what led to the closure of the Consulting Association in 2009, and it is appalling that the regulator is not taking immediate and punitive action when complaints are received."

The TUC's Paul Nowak echoed Ludkin: "Trade unionism is a cornerstone of any democratic society. People who campaign for fairness at work deserve to be praised, not dumped on a blacklist with terrorists and despots," he said. "Thomson Reuters has serious questions to answer. People will rightly want to know how this information was gathered, stored and used. There is a real danger innocent people will suffer as a result of this flawed intelligence gathering."


It can also be revealed that World-Check has kept profiles on animal rights activists, categorising some in its terror database despite them having faced no terror-related charges.

VICE unearthed a terror profile on former Hollywood child actress Pamelyn Ferdin, who performed in Star Trek and was the voice of "Lucy van Pelt" in Peanuts. Ferdin played a prominent role supporting animals rights causes.

But Ferdin's profile contains no allegations, charges or convictions of terrorism. Rather, in a profile that contains her personal and professional history as well as her spouse's details, it states only that Ferdin was "sentenced to three months imprisonment for trespassing and targeted demonstration outside the home of an employee of Los Angeles department of animal services".


Ferdin says she had no knowledge of the profile, kept on her for over a decade, until VICE brought it to her attention. World-Check subsequently removed the profile after she requested it, Ferdin said.

Fellow American animal rights activist, Andrew Stepanian, received a lengthier conviction than Ferdin. In 2006 he was found guilty of conspiracy to violate the Animal Enterprise Protection Act and sentenced to three years imprisonment. Three months later, World-Check created a terror profile on Stepanian, recording the above as well as his personal details.

Having served his sentence, Stepanian regained his freedom in 2008 and now manages creative campaigning for the likes of the American Civil Liberties Union. However, unknown to him, World-Check retained the terrorism profile. Then, in 2013, he would receive unwelcome news, when his bank JP Morgan Chase, a subscriber to World-Check, wrote to tell him it would close his account.

Stepanian was shocked, as the letter gave no reason for his account's closure and came at an inconvenient time. "When my account was closed only a few months before my first son was born, it was really disruptive. I had nowhere to receive my pay check. I had to go from bank to bank to see who would accept me," said Stepanian, adding that he was unable to receive pay checks for a while. "All of this was with a baby about to arrive. It was pretty stressful."

VICE informed Stepanian about his ongoing terror profile in World-Check's database, eight years after serving his sentence, while the number of profiles is rapidly growing. "They're creating haystacks to find needles," he observed.

In another case, Thomson Reuters kept a terrorism profile on 50-year-old catering assistant Helen Luff in its database for nearly a decade. The Isle of Wight resident's profile cites a conviction of burglary in the course of her animal rights activism for which she served 100 hours community service. Under "funding", the profile lists her as "former traffic warden".

Luff said she had never heard of World-Check and could hardly believe such a thing existed. Luff contacted Thomson Reuters and was twice told they did not have a profile on her. At the third time of insisting, Thomson Reuters provided a copy of her profile, which it says it deleted last year, after nine years in its database.

"The most shocking thing is when you see [my name] in black and white, under the heading 'Terrorism'," she said. "You hear about these things going off in London, driving into pedestrians, and to think, 'I'm linked to these people?' It's unbelievable. And the fact that you don't know about [your profile] makes it all very sneaky and underhand. I could've went for a job somewhere, not got it and never known why. And it could've been because they've gone through [World-Check]."

Luff's profile biography also says she is an "Alleged member {General} of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC)". However, Luff says membership was not an option for her and she was simply signed up to its mailing list. In any case, the now defunct SHAC was not a proscribed organisation. Luff said she would be seeking legal advice.


The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) is the body charged with regulating "data controllers" like World-Check. Last year, the regulator admitted receiving "several complaints" about World-Check, but had yet to open an investigation into the company's handling of data.

In an updated statement, an ICO spokesperson stopped short of saying it would open an investigation into World-Check's use of data. Instead, it was now "carrying out detailed enquiries into this issue" and invited anyone who thinks their information has been handled unfairly may raise their concern.

But GMB union Legal Director Ludkin said the ICO had not gone far enough. Recalling the construction industry scandal, she said, "Once again, the Information Commissioner is turning a blind eye to blacklisting despite acknowledging receiving numerous complaints."

Hayes, who consults on financial surveillance, said the risks of unregulated profiling were clear: "When perfectly innocent people exercising their democratic rights to protest or join a union are presumed suspect, it fundamentally undermines their rights. It could also lead to the abuse of counter-terrorism powers against individuals who are patently not involved in terrorist activity."

There could be no excuse for regulators failing to act, he added: "The size of the database, the implications for those listed and the fundamental lack of meaningful recourse make an investigation into not just World-Check but the entire 'risk profiling' industry an absolute no-brainer."