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FBI Computers Won’t Track Suspects Who Are Not Under Arrest

Times Staff Writer

The FBI has dropped plans to use its nationwide computer crime files to track people suspected but not arrested in drug, murder and kidnaping cases, a controversial proposal that civil libertarians last month called “an unprecedented type of nationwide electronic surveilance.”

A needed expansion of the National Crime Information Center will proceed without the inclusion of what commonly are called “investigative files,” FBI Director William S. Sessions wrote Thursday to Rep. Don Edwards (D-San Jose), chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on civil and constitutional rights.

Edwards, who had questioned the proposal to expand the computer network with the investigative information, supports the revised FBI plan and said Sessions had made the “right decision.”

An advisory board representing the 64,000 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies using the national crime computers had proposed a year ago to expand the system to list suspects. Whenever any law enforcement agency then asked about them, the original agency listing them also could be notified.

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But computer experts from the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibilities--at Edwards’ request--said last month that the plan would turn the crime network “from a public records system . . . into a surveilance system.” The computer experts, working with the American Civil Liberties Union, also said the changes, whose potential benefits they called questionable, would “raise serious constitutional issues.”

Janlori Goldman, an ACLU attorney, said the group was “thrilled” with Sessions’ decision. “We think that this reflects (his) sensitivity to privacy and civil liberties concerns. There was too much at stake here to move forward,” she said.

The federal computer system now lets law enforcement agencies exchange information across state lines, handling almost 20 million individual records on missing persons, stolen property and criminal histories. It has grown substantially from the 300,000 records it had when created in 1967.

The system’s expansion, which will cost an estimated $30 million to $40 million, now will include what Sessions has described as technical enhancements.

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