The Justice Department lifted a requirement Monday that the FBI ensure the accuracy and timeliness of information about criminals and crime victims before adding it to the country's most comprehensive law enforcement database.
The system, run by the FBI's National Crime Information Center, includes data about terrorists, fugitives, warrants, people missing, gang members and stolen vehicles, guns or boats.
Records are queried increasingly by the nation's law enforcement agencies to help decide whether to monitor, detain or arrest someone. The records are inaccessible to the public, and police have been prosecuted in U.S. courts for misusing the system to find, for example, personal information about girlfriends or former spouses.
Officials said the change, which immediately drew criticism from civil liberties advocates, is necessary to ensure that investigators have access to information that can't be confirmed but could take on new significance later, FBI spokesman Paul Bresson said.
The change to the 1974 U.S. Privacy Act was disclosed with an announcement published in the Federal Register.
The Privacy Act previously required the FBI to ensure that information was "accurate, relevant, timely and complete" before it could be added to the system.
"It's a pretty big job to be accurate and complete," said Stewart Baker, a Washington lawyer who specializes in technology and surveillance issues. "On the other hand, these are potentially very significant records for people, and if it's not accurate and complete, it can mean trouble."
Critics urged Congress to review the change, arguing that information in the computer files was especially important because it can affect many aspects of a person's life.
"This is information that has always been stigmatizing, the type of data that can prevent someone from getting a job," said Marc Rotenberg of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center. "When you remove the accuracy obligations, you open the door to the use of unreliable information."
Critics have noted complaints for years about wrong information in the computer files that disrupted the lives of innocent people, and the FBI has acknowledged problems.
In one case, a Phoenix resident was arrested for minor traffic violations that had been quashed weeks earlier; in another, a civilian was misidentified as a Navy deserter.
The system "is replete with inaccurate, untimely information, but everybody does their best to keep it up to date," said Beryl Howell, former general counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
In the change, the Justice Department said earlier restrictions on information "would limit the ability of trained investigators and intelligence analysts to exercise their judgment in reporting on investigations and impede the development of criminal intelligence necessary for effective law enforcement."
It added that, because the system collects its data from so many other organizations, "it is administratively impossible to ensure compliance."