What’s in a name? A lot, when you travel

Rajkamal Rao | Updated on January 13, 2018

Window to the world Better follow global best practices   -  KK Mustafah

In an age of growing anxiety over identities, conforming to global naming standards can help clear confusion

In the wake of the global chaos created by US President Donald Trump’s recent travel restrictions on seven countries and subsequent court orders, it is fascinating to note how different agencies of the US government do not agree on something as fundamental as who can be admitted into the country. Trump insists that people from certain countries where lawlessness is rampant need to be “extremely vetted”.

The first check in any vetting concerns an individual’s name — the most basic definition of identity. Although India is not affected by Trump’s order, many Indians — especially in the southern States and some northern states — have a serious issue with identities. They nurse a cultural indifference to the global structure of human names. In a world which relies on technology to differentiate good people from bad, their pride will only make matters worse.

How the lady has changed

Generally, the name of an individual is broken down into two halves. The first name is the name given at birth (Sachin). The last name (surname) represents the name of the family to which the child is born (Tendulkar). This approach works well for both boys and girls — as, after all, the family is the smallest unit of the society.

Earlier, women who married changed their last names to the family names of their husbands. (This is still the law in countries such as Japan and Korea). But for reasons of career, identity or ideology, many women later decided to abandon this practice and held onto their names at birth throughout their careers (Demi Moore or Susan Sarandon).

Some women in the west adopted a hybrid system. They kept their maiden family name as a middle name while also adding the family name of the husband (Hillary Rodham Clinton). The idea here was to demonstrate that a woman went from one family to another through marriage. Should she ever get divorced she could simply drop the latest last name and regain her identity at birth.

No matter what deviations people have sought however, the basic structure — of first name, last name — has largely continued to withstand the test of time.

Except in many parts of India.

Many Indians don’t have a surname at all and are known only by one name (Dharmendra, Pran). The obvious problem with this approach is that no clues are known about the person’s family — siblings, parents, paternal uncles and grandfather.

Adding to the confusion

Others use their given name at birth in the last name field, using an initial, generally, to represent the name of the father (K Sheela). This is just as confusing as the single name case. To make matters more confusing, these women, after marriage, switch the initial to that of the husband keeping everything else the same (R Sheela). Or, they add on the husband’s first name as their new last name (Sheela Rajiv).

And when Indian women use the traditional name structure, they assume the family name of the husband after marriage but, in a twist, add the husband’s given name as the middle name (Sheela Rajiv Jain). This takes away all of the woman’s identity related to her birth family.

In short, the Indian convention of names, or rather lack of convention, is a complete mess. Even the smartest computers of today are not trained to handle these inconsistent naming standards. And this becomes a problem when computers are increasingly relied upon to identify and authenticate individuals.

Consider the case of an Indian traveller visiting a western nation. A Sachin Tendulkar will have no issues at all. His first and last names have stayed consistent throughout his life. When applying for his visa, the name fields, properly filled out as per the passport, will exactly match the travel document. The simple-headed machines that computers are will flag him through every check because everything is perfect.

For a mononymous person like a Sridevi, complications begin. If the entire name is in the First Name field on the passport, the Last Name field will be blank. The world’s computers go by what is in the Last Name field and a blank is clearly not a unique identifier. So the US while issuing a visa, for example, takes the name Sridevi as the Last Name and fills in the letters “FNU” (First Name Unknown) in the First Name field.

This is a huge problem. The name fields on the passport no longer match those on the visa. Airline reservation systems require a last name. Which last name to use? The “blank” last name in the passport? “Unknown”? Or the given name (as per the visa)? In the last case, what will the first name be? “FNU”?

Global best practice

Computers do not like mismatches. The Indian passport system computer, the US visa computer and the airline reservation system computer all describe the same individual differently. True, numeric data (passport name, date of birth) will be the same but name inconsistencies throw a huge monkey wrench into the wheel of global travel.

How is this poor soul expected to experience seamless transit at multiple checkpoints through her trip?

Before global terrorism took hold, these inconsistencies were routinely flagged through by human gate agents and immigration officers. But in a world where anxiety levels are high, governments have turned to computers to flag every traveller for risk. Airlines submit passenger manifests to countries weeks in advance — and this information is run through complex databases of multiple governments to identify unscrupulous travellers. The last name field acts as a primary key in all checks. Confusion with the last name field results in absolute mayhem.

The Indian passport office must urge citizens to conform to global naming standards — first name and last name. If last names are unavailable, the government should adopt a default standard - such as using the birth city as the last name, for example. In an increasingly data dependent world, India, home to global leaders in technology services, should not fall behind in defining something as fundamental as a human name.

The writer is the managing director of Rao Advisors LLC, Texas

Published on February 22, 2017

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