Which Is Scarier: Dirty Data in the Hands of the FBI or Bloggers?

Opinion: That's a trick question. There's no choice because we're victims to dirty data from both camps. And more, of course, much, much more.

Just what we need, in this era of identity theft and unclean data: another reason to fear and loathe a database.

This time, its the FBI Criminal Database, which, it turns out, spits out missed records and false positives at the rate of some 11.7 percent.

The numbers come from a review of the National Crime Information Center and the Interstate Identification System recently commissioned by the National Association of Professional Background Screeners in order to evaluate how accurate and complete criminal records are.

Not particularly, as it turns out.

The author of the review, Craig N. Winston, primarily looked at a fairly recent report—2001—by the Bureau of Justice Statistics that found that the "accuracy and completeness of criminal history records is the single most serious deficiency affecting the Nations criminal history record information systems."

The BJS report analyzed 93,274 background checks from Florida licensing or employment applicants, 323 public housing applicants, and 2,550 volunteers. Out of that group, when compared to fingerprint-verified criminal histories, name checks turned up 11.7 percent false negatives and 5.5 percent false positives.

That means that out of 10,673 subjects found to have a criminal record that was verified by fingerprints, name checks missed 1,252 of them, returning a false clean slate. Of the 82,610 individuals determined as not having criminal records, it missed 4,562 who in fact were criminals.

Based on those findings, the BSJ found that out of the 6.9 million fingerprints conducted by the FBI in 1997, 346,000 false positives and 70,200 false negatives would result if a name-checking database were used.

Granted, thats old data. Winston, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Sonoma State University, told me that things have been improving since then and, he hopes, will continue to improve.

Still, core problems remain.

One major problem is linking data to the proper individual and case. Due to the use of aliases, false identifying information and clerical errors, duplicate records are created. Such problems can be overcome with the use of fingerprinting, but, as Winston pointed out, Burger King isnt going to start fingerprinting potential employees any time soon.

Some states have mitigated the problem by implementing a case tracking system that integrates individuals names with their case identification numbers. However, states still report problems with linking names with numbers, particularly given modifications to records, such as plea bargaining.

Next Page: Inconsistent format between states.