WASHINGTON – The FBI is bolstering its database of fingerprints to include those from misdemeanor and juvenile offenses, but Maryland says it won’t go along with the change.
FBI officials said the new record-collecting policy, which relies heavily on states to volunteer records of “nonserious” offenses, will help track down criminals and expand employee screening.
But privacy advocates argue that enlarging the FBI’s Fingerprint Identification Records System will bedevil job applicants with minor offenses on their records, and that the tide of data could lead to the misidentification of suspects.
Previously, the FBI only admitted the criminal records of persons arrested for serious misdemeanors or felonies into the database, which holds the digitized prints of more than 50 million Americans, said Harold M. Sklar, an assistant general counsel for the FBI.
Records of nonserious offenses, such as petty larceny, trespassing and drunkenness, were accessible only at the state and local levels.
The database is largely supported by records from local and state jurisdictions, but the new policy does not compel state law enforcement agencies to hand over records to the FBI for retention.
Maryland law enforcement officials have said that the state will not participate beyond the FBI’s old policy of storing serious misdemeanor and felony records.
“We’re going to continue to do our procedure as we’ve always done it. We feel we’ve always been very efficient and thorough,” said Mark Vernarelli, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
The new policy permits the FBI to store all fingerprints “relating to adult and juvenile offenses submitted by criminal justice agencies for retention,” according to the rule proposal, approved last week by U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez.
Police hope to better the odds of identifying criminals who leave prints at the scene of a crime — called “latent prints”– by bouncing them against a more expansive database, Sklar said.
“It would be a shame if something that could bring finality to a case were sitting in a repository somewhere,” Sklar said. “Whether they’re fingerprints found in caves or apartments, the ability to compare them against a robust record system is something we feel is necessary.”
By broadening the database’s scope, the FBI is centralizing records that had been strewn among local jurisdictions and often unavailable to outside police and employers.
Offenses such as driving while intoxicated, trespassing, prostitution and petty theft — mid- to-low-level misdemeanors in most states — were only immediately available to police in the state in which they occurred, Sklar said.
Now with one FIRS query, a school district in Maine could discover that a person seeking a job as a bus driver had once been convicted of drunken driving in California, assuming both states opted to pass the records to the FBI, Sklar said.
Christopher Calabrese, counsel for the ACLU’s Technology & Liberty Project said that, more likely, employers will use the database to sort out applicants with any stain on their records, whether or not the nature of the offense is relevant to the job requirements.
“This is part of a much larger trend of permanently recording every blemish and mistake in our lives and having it follow us around for the rest of our lives,” Calabrese said. “A lot of these offenses are exactly the nonserious things that we used to think people could grow out of and move on — that’s why they’re called ‘nonserious.'”
Broadening the database would encourage more false positives, Calabrese said, because as volume increases, so does the difficulty in grooming and updating the database.
“Yes, you can create the possibly of solving new crimes, but you also create the possibly of ensnaring people who are falsely connected to a crime because of mistaken information,” he said. “Fingerprint matches are accurate, yes. What’s more likely to happen is mistakes being made in linking the person to their fingerprints.”
James A. Hender, a University of Maryland, College Park, computer science professor and former branch chief in the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, said that “the larger and larger connections become, the greater the chance for accidental use or accidental misuse. You’d like to see a larger collection come with a higher standard of both input quality and output quality,” he said.
As the database swells, it will become a larger target and harder to protect, Hender said.
“From a security point of view, if you put all the gold in Fort Knox, it better be Fort Knox,” he said.
Surveys from contributing law enforcement agencies showed that the new collections are unlikely to “excessively increase” the fingerprints on file, Sklar said, and that they can be easily handled by the current system.
The FBI obtains 94 percent of its criminal records from state and local police, Sklar said, emphasizing that these jurisdictions elect — but are not required — to hand the records over to the federal authorities for storage, and that anyone can request to view their own records in the database, Sklar said.
“We try to walk that fine line between doing justice for people who use the records and doing justice for people who don’t want to be characterized or viewed inaccurately. We have a way for people to say, ‘This information is wrong,'” Sklar said.
The policy rolls back a restriction imposed in 1974 to cut back on the bulk of paper files — not out of concerns for privacy, Sklar said. Since 1999, prints have been stored electronically in the FIRS, making the restriction unnecessary, he said.