National REAL-ID database replicates problems with FBI rap sheets

Previously unpublished information we’ve recently obtained from thecontractor that developed the SPEXS database at the center of state ‘compliance’ with the REAL-ID Act – the national database of drivers license and state ID details that the DHS and supporters of the REAL-ID Act keep claiming doesn’t exist – shed new light on how the system will work.
Unfortunately, these new documents and statements show that SPEXS will replicate many of the worst problems of poor data quality and lack of accountability of the NCIC database used by the FBI to store criminal history ‘rap sheets’ of warrants, arrests, and dispositions of criminal cases: convictions, diversions, withdrawals, dismissals, acquittals, appellate decisions, etc.
Like SPEXS, NCIC aggregates data sourced from agencies in every state, the District of Columbia, and the US territories of Puerto Rico, the U. S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands. The FBI operates the aggregated database, but disclaims any responsibility for the accuracy of the data it stores, indexes, and distributes.
As we noted in our previous post, the FBI has exempted NCIC records from the requirements of the Privacy Act for accuracy, relevance to a lawful purpose, access by data subjects, and correction of errors. That should mean that NCIC records can’t be relied on, but the Supreme Court has ruled that an entry in NCIC provides sufficient legal basis for an arrest.
NCIC is the poster child for the evil consequences of reliance on ‘garbage in, garbage out’ aggregated and unverified data as a basis for government decision-making. Inevitably, NCIC records are riddled with errors. Law enforcement agencies are quick to report arrests and newly-issued warrants to NCIC, but have nothing to gain by ever reporting when charges are dismissed or a warrant is quashed. Who knows when some other police agency might find it convenient to rely on an NCIC record of a long-since-quashed warrant as a basis for authority to arrest and search someone who they would otherwise have to let walk away?

This post was published at Papers Please on June 30th, 2016.