U.S. Lifts FBI Criminal Database Checks

posted Mar 26, 2003

The Justice Department lifted a requirement Monday that the FBI ensure the accuracy and timeliness of information about criminals and crime victims before adding it to the country's most comprehensive law enforcement database.

The system, run by the FBI's National Crime Information Center, includes data about terrorists, fugitives, warrants, people missing, gang members and stolen vehicles, guns or boats. [Privacy Digest]

I submit to you that this is actually a good thing, or at least will be in the long run.

The database will exist, and as long as it is secure (big "if", but go with me on this for a moment), it's a necessary part of the law enforcement machinery of a society. We can and should argue about who gets what access to it, but it's going to exist in one form or another. The alternative is to simply destroy all these records, and that's not a good idea, though I note we frequently do selectively destroy these records in some cases. (For instance, a first-time drug offense by a minor may be wiped from the record after successfully completing a probation period.) The problem with the database is not that it exists.

The problem isn't that it's inaccurate, either. All large databases have inaccuracies. There's no way around it. That does not make them inherently useless or bad.

The problem is that this inherent inaccuracy is not recognized and blind trust is placed in the system. It's difficult for a citizen to correct the records, because the people running the system trust the system over anything else. Errors have significant impact on people's lives because the entries are blindly trusted, and again, the onus is on the citizen to prove that the record is incorrect.

In the long run, recognizing that the system is inaccurate could, and I daresay should have a positive impact on how the system is used by law enforcement. Better procedures for correcting the database should be put in place, and users of the database need to be trained that the database is not reliable and should be checked. For instance, if somebody's record is spotless until they are suddenly marked as wanted in connection with a murder, it's worth checking that out before blindly trusting it. Yes, sometimes people do start with murder, but often they work their way up to it, leaving a legal trail behind, and since falsely accusing someone of being connected to a murder is a life changing event for the accusee, it's worth the time to validate the database entry before sending in the SWAT team to arrest the person.

Further, if the Justice Department is no longer pretending the system is accurate, and they've gone public with this information, that can only help a falsely accused person in the courtroom by making it that much more likely the judge will put a stronger burden of proof on the FBI to establish the individual's connection to the crime (where it belongs), and that much easier to obtain a punitive judgement against the FBI in the case of an error. And that'll encourage the FBI that much more to establish the better correction and validation protocols mentioned in the previous paragraphs. One could make a very good case that when a database error is the sole reason one is arrested, that constitutes a form of guilty-until-proven innocent, and merely the process of arrest and holding, unless duly compensated by the government, is a form of punishment before a conviction.

Of course law enforcement will arrest people who were not connected to the crime under investigation, or interview or detain such people. That's an unavoidable, if unfortunate, aspect of law enforcement. But there must be some actual reason to do so, some evidence. A mis-typed entry in a database does not constitute evidence. It's just an error by the government, and it should be treated as such.

Hopefully, this is actually a sign of growth on the part of the Justice Department and the FBI in recognizing that computers are not inherently perfect, that the systems are useful but flawed, and that you can not blindly trust any single source of information, even if that source is "a computer". Hopefully this is a sign that the organization is acquiring a view of computers that is less magical and more pragmatic. If this is the root cause, then this is a good development.

I don't support a surveillance society and think it's a bad idea under any circumstances. But you make the surveillance society a hundred times worse if you put too much faith in the surveillance machinery. I don't really want to live in either world, I prefer true freedom, but of the two negative choices, I would much, much, much rather want to live in the society where the authorities recognize that the system is full of inaccuracies, and the lower you make the detection threshold (to catch more stuff), the more false positives you get.

Here's to hoping...


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