Friday, 4 January 2013

Did I Make the List?

Many of us live on lists, even when some of them don’t serve us well. The holidays brought out countless wish lists and shopping lists. Those addicted to the busy trap are proud of their never-ending to-do lists. Under the pressure of publish or peril, some of us in the academia love counting and recounting items on our publication and citation lists. And a few years ago there was a movie about bucket lists.

In recent years, however, instead of placing objects or goals on lists, we have been increasingly putting people on undisclosed lists. After 9/11, there have been concerns that the US government has expanded surveillance on anyone in the world, even people who are just passing through, or communicating everyday matters. People of certain religious affiliations, ethnic backgrounds, countries of birth, or political ideologies have filled various watch lists – some reportedly even got questioned or detained by the National Securities Agency (NSA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) without proper legal representation. While one list that I like when flying is the upgrade list (which I rarely get on – sigh), the no-fly list is probably the more populated one, even if less popular and largely impossible to get off.

In this watch-list culture, perhaps it should be no surprise that the American National Rifle Association (NRA) wanted a national database of “lunatics”. Sure, it’s ironic, as the group has always fought against a gun registry. Many who have been horrified by the recent Newtown tragedy and shocked by the group’s subsequent responses may wonder if the NRA members themselves would qualify for their desired list.

I will save the issues of lumping people with various forms and severities of mental illness together into one list and calling them “lunatics” for a later post. And many have already reported on various good reasons to have stricter domestic gun control and global arms trade, and to ensure that certain people do not handle or own firearms. What is worth noting here is that, while some are appalled by NRA’s potentially discriminatory suggestion, most states already require or authorize the use of mental health records for firearm background check, lapses in reporting notwithstanding.

The culture of violence and war in the US and around the world certainly requires change. As I ponder on that for another post, I wonder if people knew that the aforementioned health-record lists are already being shared, and if we were not aware of that, why it might be the case. Should we have such a list, and if so, who do you think should be on this list? What criteria do you think we should use to place people on the list, and what type of information should we include on each person? Are you concerned about privacy implications or misuse of information? Or do you trust that the government or parties with access to such data would only collect and use this information in appropriate ways? How would you balance the rights and limits to privacy? Or do you think that this list only affects people with mental illness, and if we don’t (think we) have one, we have nothing to worry about anyway? What about other lists that you may or may not even know about?

Image Sources:

The List; No-Fly List; Health Records Hacker


  1. I don't know if all lists are bad. It depends on how you use the list, and whether the privacy rules are followed. If yes, then I'm fine with it. Some lists are good, like for sex offenders. If you aren't an offender, you don't have anything to worry about. I don't like the word lunatic, but people with mental health problems shouldn't have guns.

    1. Thanks for the comments, RC. The sex offenders' list raises an interesting point. Having done work in gender-based violence, I agree that we need to prevent sex offense. We need to change the whole culture of violence, and how we deal with offenders. Regarding the registry itself, there are empirical questions about the effectiveness of the registry, and ethical questions of whether registering not only predatory criminals (e.g., rapists) and child molesters, but also pranksters who expose themselves would be fair. Not all sex offenders in the registry committed the same types/severity of offense or have the same likelihood of re-offense, so whether a catch-all list is a good tool for prevention is still questionable. It may come back to the questions I had at the end of my blog post -- who should be on the list, what criteria should we use, etc. And simply registering people without providing treatment in some of these cases may not deal with the root of the problems either.

      Some information on Canada's National Sex Offender Registry: