The Baltimore Sun reports on a case where an error in a government database led to a women losing her job. The database, the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (“NCIC”), is a system that makes criminal history information widely available to police officers and law enforcement officials across the United States.
Eschol Amelia Studnitz lost her $58,000 accounting job July 31 because a government background check deemed her “unsuitable” for a low-level security clearance. She was stunned. She had no criminal record. […]
Her shock was warranted: Her firing was based on a mistake.
This is not surprising. The NCIC is an important and widely used database that is full of record inaccuracies. Yet, in 2003, the Department of Justice chose to exempt the NCIC from numerous mandates established by the Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552a, most notably accuracy requirements.
There have been numerous examples demonstrating the consequences of inaccurate and incomplete information in the NCIC system. The problem of record accuracy has plagued the system for years. According to a report (pdf) from the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, “[i]n the view of most experts, inadequacies in the accuracy and completeness of criminal history records is the single most serious deficiency affecting the Nation’s criminal history record information systems.” This report, the latest in the Use and Management of Criminal History Record Information: A Comprehensive Report series, was completed in 2001.
In a 2005 report (again, the latest available), the Bureau of Justice Statistics detailed ongoing concerns about errors in NCIC databases. It points to problems with State criminal history records, which are fed into the NCIC. “Recent BJS surveys have suggested that criminal history repositories are encountering several problems including significant backlogs, older records that have no dispositions, and infrequent audits to ensure accuracy of records.”
Also included in the NCIC database (according to 2005 Congressional testimony from an FBI official) are records from the Terrorist Screening Center. Last week, the Washington Post reported that there are 400,000 names on the terrorist watchlists and 1,600 additions are suggested daily, according to the FBI.
Earlier this year, the Justice Department’s Inspector General reported (pdf) substantial problems with the terrorist watchlists. “The Federal Bureau of Investigation has improperly kept nearly 24,000 people on a terrorist watch list based on outdated or sometimes irrelevant information, while it missed others with legitimate terror ties who should have been on the list,” said the New York Times.
For more on problems with government databases, read the amicus brief (pdf) that I co-authored, which concerns law enforcement databases.