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Garbage In, Garbage Out

Many people have worried for years about what will happen when government finds a Big Computer that can catalogue everything about everybody, every scrap of which information--true or false-- would then be available at the punch of a button. That day is not here yet, but experience with the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, the nation’s centralized computer-data base, indicates that such fears for the future are not groundless.

A continuing series of FBI audits of the data base has found that it sends 12,000 false or inaccurate reports on individual suspects every day to law-enforcement agencies around the country. It’s not really the FBI’s fault. The erroneous information that the computer spews out was put in by state and local law enforcers in the first place. There appears to be not much quality control in crime information, and, as one of the oldest lines in computerdom asserts, “Garbage in, garbage out.”

But the information in that computer is more than accounting data or the marketing forecasts of strategic planners. This is vital personal information that affects people’s lives. There have been cases, and not just a few of them, in which the wrong person has been arrested and jailed because of bad information from a computer. Police officers are more likely to take the word of the FBI’s computer than of a person who claims that it’s all a mistake.

About 62,000 criminal-justice agencies throughout the country seek information from the FBI’s crime computer nearly 500,000 times a day. The FBI says that a 2.4% error ratio isn’t so bad when you consider that the system results in the apprehension of more than 70,000 wanted felons a year. Tell that to people who have erroneous information about them sent to the local cops.

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And the police are not the only ones who get this information. A growing number of employers, such as day-care centers and schools, also use the FBI crime computer to run background checks on prospective employees. There is a legitimate social need to do that, but, if the information is wrong, a person’s livelihood, career and reputation may be irreparably damaged.

As with many ills, it is easier to describe the problem than to fix it. But it’s clear that the accuracy of the information maintained by the FBI needs more scrutiny.

Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has proposed giving the states more money to beef up their record-keeping. That would help. But no amount of effort and attention can ever eliminate all errors from a human system. People have always made mistakes, and will always make mistakes. The trouble is that the computer makes it possible to give those mistakes nationwide distribution.

Still, things can be improved, and it is vital to the FBI and to all law enforcement that they be improved. The future of the National Crime Information Center depends on reducing the error rate so that both the police and the public are confident that information obtained from the computer is correct.

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