A Quebec businessman whose name is one of the many that have erroneously landed on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's flight passenger watch list has decided to change his name to avoid lengthy security hassles at the airport.
Mario Labbé, an executive with a Montreal-based record company, says his Canadian passport triggers a red alert on the computers of U.S. customs agents every time he tries to board a flight to the U.S. — which is about once a month for the past seven years.
"I was pulled aside in a room ... and you have to wait your turn to finally be released," Labbé said. "An hour, an hour and a half, two hours, whatever it is after. Once I was caught in Miami like that for six hours.
"It's always the same questions, about if I've lost my passport, if I've been to Japan — I don't know why Japan, but in their file it was something to do with Japan."
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security wrote a letter to Labbé in 2004, saying he had been placed on their watch list after falling victim to identity theft. At the time, the department said there was no way for his name to be removed.
Although Labbé wrote letters to the U.S. department, his efforts were in vain, prompting him to legally change his name.
"So now, my official name is François Mario Labbé," he said.
"Then you have to change everything: driver's license, social insurance, medicare, credit card — everything."
Although it's not a big change from Mario Labbé, he said it's been enough to foil the U.S. customs computers.
The U.S. Transportation Security Administration has said it submits three updated lists to the airlines daily: a "no-fly" list identifying people not allowed to board planes, a "selectee" list of passengers requiring extra screening and another "cleared" list of passengers who have been certified as safe after experiencing problems.
The lists — compiled by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. using information submitted by 17 different government departments and law enforcement agencies — are designed to keep terrorism suspects off commercial airline flights.
More than a million people are now on the lists, according to Roch Tassé of the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, and another 25,000 are added each month.
He said there is no way of knowing how many Canadians have been flagged.
Liberal Senator Colin Kenny says his son, a lawyer, has the same problem and that Transport Canada is powerless to help.
Officials at the agency said "'it's not my problem, go and talk to the Americans,'" Kenny told CBC News.
U.S. security expert Daniel Steinbock said many people who have no connection to terrorism can end up on the lists. An even bigger problem, he said, is the so-called false positives that turn up if someone has the name of another person already on a list.
"The most notable one in the United States is Sen. Edward Kennedy, who for quite some time was prevented from getting on airplanes. Apparently, there was some other Edward Kennedy who was on the no-fly list," Steinbock said.
The U.S. Transportation Security Administration has introduced a process for people to follow to have their names removed from a list. But because the backlog of requests is so large, it's very difficult to get off, Steinbock said.