World-Check is a database used by banks globally to help identify and manage financial, regulatory and reputational risk to large companies.
Investigators from Al Jazeera Arabic's Ma Khafia Aazam (Tip of the Iceberg) program were able to obtain the database, which contains more than three million names, as well as the sources it uses for its designations, most importantly of financial crimes and "terrorism".
The investigative report revealed that the database, which contains hundreds of thousands of Muslim and Arab names, relied on "terrorism lists" issued by countries such as Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, without verification.
The database used to be part of Thomson Reuters Financial & Risk before a majority stake in the business was sold to the Blackstone Group in October 2018. The business was renamed Refinitiv.
The creation of the database was aimed at reducing financial risk to companies.
World-Check's promotional material states that 49 of the world's largest 50 banks use its database, which suggests that it dominates the international market.
Al Jazeera's Ma Khafia Aazam noted that the company adds about 25,000 names to its blacklist every month, most notably to the "terrorism" list, which contains hundreds of thousands of Muslim names.
In their analysis of the database, the programme's team revealed that World-Check relied on international banks and intelligence agencies from different countries, including lists issued by Arab governments, without taking into account the level of freedom or democracy in these countries.
The database also used information from the "yellow press" in some nations, most prominently Israel.
When the program's team accessed the company's database, through one of its clients, they discovered that the sources the company relied on for its designations consisted primarily of publicly available websites.
The list of people includes former Egyptian football player Mohamed Aboutrika, whose designation as a "terrorist" was based on news published on websites run by the Egyptian government.
Lack of verification
Over the years, several lawsuits have been filed against World-Check.
In 2014, the managers of the Finsbury Park Mosque in London were surprised when its bank accounts were frozen on the grounds of "supporting terrorism".
They sued World-Check, which subsequently issued an apology and withdrew the mosque's name from the list.
The London-based Palestinian Return Centre (PRC) was also placed on the list but, following a lawsuit by the center, a settlement was reached with Thomson Reuters, which had acquired World-Check in 2005.
Farooq Bajwa, whose law firm has represented people named in the World-Check database, said that the company sometimes only relies on internet search engines and lists issued by governments as a source for their lists.
Kenneth Rijock, a former World-Check adviser, explained that any commercial database of highly dangerous persons must rely on open sources such as newspaper articles and lawsuits.
The program's reporters reached out to the company's management to inquire about their main objective and the sources they use.
The management responded that their main role is to combat financial crimes, denying that the lists were confidential and explaining that individuals have the right to request a copy of their file and inquire about their status on the list.
Source: Al Jazeera