© 1999 by John Q. Newman Artwork © 1999 by Mary Fleener
A new trend is fast developing in the world of personal information databanks and privacy rights. This trend is to create the illusion of public safety via databases of personal information. Most people know that the government keeps databases of those who have criminal records, and we accept this as a necessary infringement on personal privacy to protect public safety. But new developments go far beyond this.
The states and the federal government are coming up with all sorts of ways to increase the number of negative personal information databanks, and the number of individuals with records in them. Let's consider some cases and see what limited legal recourse an individual has when his name and identifiers are wrongly placed in one of these files.
We can start with criminal records and arrest records. Arrest records are the most damaging, because frequently the police arrest and fingerprint totally innocent people as they investigate a crime. A person may happen to look like the suspect, or just be in the wrong place at the wrong time. An arrest generates a mug shot, fingerprint file, and a description of the personal identifiers such as date of birth, height, weight, sex and race, along with the crime charge.
Even if the person is released a few hours later with no charges, the information flow does not stop at the local police station. The arrestee's fingerprints are transmitted first to the state central crime computer to search for a match. If no match is found, a new file is created in this computer system. Next, the same data takes a trip to the FBI national crime information computer.
The FBI computer tries to match an existing file in the Interstate Identification Index, a compre-hensive nationwide database of criminal record information from the federal government and state jurisdictions. On a regular basis, states forward criminal conviction information to the FBI to build this database. This database contains records of all arrests because the file initially sent to the FBI is an arrest record.
Arrest records are the most damaging, because frequently the police arrest and fingerprint many totally innocent people as they investigate a crime. An arrest generates a mug shot, fingerprint file, and a description of the personal identifiers such as date of birth, height, weight, sex and race, along with the crime charge.
A future employer doing a background check may get ahold of these files. Perhaps our hapless individual was arrested on suspicion of rape. The records will show that he was arrested for this charge, even though it was later dropped. That alone is enough for many employers to revoke a job offer, or put someone in the uncomfortable position of having to explain just what really did happen.
You might think that the court system would recognize the tremendous damage wrongful arrest records can have on individuals, and that it would be mandatory for police departments and the FBI to destroy arrest records that did not lead to subsequent criminal prosecution. This is not true.
The U.S. Supreme Court visited this issue in the 1970s. A man in Los Angeles was wrongfully arrested on suspicion of burglary. The charges were dropped shortly after he had been arrested, but not before his information had made the long trip on the data expressway. The Supreme Court dismissed his case saying in effect that he had no real ongoing interest in his arrest record.
In some countries, such as Canada, an individual can have the arrest information deleted from the computer and destroyed if no charges are prosecuted or the individual is found not guilty of the crime. In the United States, an individual can attempt to get his arrest record sealed, but this is a long and difficult process, and frequently it does not work because of the numerous agencies involved.
Criminal records are only one small part of the growing problem. In some states, if child protective services is called, a person's name and birthdate goes into a central database of possible child abusers. This happens even if the charges are found to be baseless. After one visit, the accused is considered to be a potential child abuser.
A national television newsmagazine profiled a woman in a medium-sized eastern city whose neighbors repeatedly called child welfare officials on her because of a grudge. After each visit, the child welfare workers would write that the allegations were baseless, and the women was a fit parent. Yet this woman's name and birthdate still appear in this state's listing of potential child abusers.
So the wrongly arrested individual now has a file at three locations: at the local police department that made the arrest; with the state central crime computer; and finally, with the FBI. These files do not magically disappear when no charges are forthcoming. They remain, and can affect the person's life for many years to come.
There's also a new database for people who owe unpaid child support. Beginning this year, it will be mandatory for all employers to furnish personal employee information to something known as the National New Hire Database. New employees will have their names, birthdates and Social Security numbers furnished to this federal database. Once again, we see the hallmark of security via database. All new employees must be checked. Until this database says that someone is not a child support scofflaw, a slight question of guilt remains.
In some states, if child protective services is called, a person's name and birthdate goes into a central database of possible child abusers. This happens even if the charges are found to be baseless. After one visit, the accused is considered to be a potential child abuser.
Security via database attacks one of the fundamental tenets of personal privacy in the computer age: the information provided for one reason will not be used for another purpose.
Do we really want to live in a country where we are constantly checked and rechecked for outstanding arrest warrants just for going about our everyday business?
The FBI would argue that many dangerous fugitives would be caught this way, and thus society would be safer. But at what price? Do we really want to live in a country where we are constantly checked and rechecked for outstanding arrest warrants just by going about our everyday business?
We're nearly there. A new airline-passenger profiling system went into effect recently. This system looks at a number of variables to determine if a passenger is a terrorist, money launderer or drug dealer. It considers such factors as destination, length of stay, how the ticket was purchased, and personal characteristics. The system is supposed to make the skies safer. In reality, many innocent people will be given the third degree by police and airline officials because they happen to fit some bureaucrat's idea of what a terrorist, money launderer, or drug dealer is like.
As people, we have two choices. We can agree with the database hawkers who tell us personal safety is only yet one more computer check away, and lose what little remains of our privacy rights. Or we can say "enough already" and accept the fact that one of the prices of living in a democracy is that we cannot have absolute security at the expense of individual privacy.
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