Learn all about the different FBI databases and how criminal records are stored.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation traces its origins back to the presidential administration of Theodore Roosevelt. During TR's term in office, he worked with his attorney general to create a cadre of special agents that over time would evolve into what today is the federal criminal investigatory agency in the United States.
In 1924, J. Edgar Hoover was appointed by President Calvin Coolidge to take over what had become known as the Bureau of Investigation, serving in that position into the 1970s and the presidency of Richard Nixon. Hoover is credited with being the individual most responsible for creating the FBI that is in operation today.
As a corollary to its investigatory functions, the FBI serves as a central depository and clearing house for a wide range of different data and information relating to crime, criminal investigations and law enforcement. This data is contained in a number of different databases maintained by the FBI, and this article discusses several of these databases.
The National Crime Information Center, or NCIC, represents the seminal data and information resource maintained by the FBI. According to the agency itself, NCIC is the "lifeline of law enforcement."
NCIC is a comprehensive clearinghouse of crime data. The database maintained by NCIC is accessible by nearly all criminal justice agencies (including courts and other law enforcement agencies) across the United States. The data maintained by the NCIC is capable of being accessed in real time, around the clock and 365 days of the year.
From comparatively lowly origins over 40 years ago, NCIC has grown into a criminal data behemoth. NCIC launched on January 27, 1967, and maintained five files at that time that included 356,784 individual records. Fiscal year 2011 represents the last year in which a full set of statistics regarding NCIC is available from the FBI. According to that information, NCIC maintained 11.7 million active records. These records are organized in 21 different file categories. The number of file categories utilized in the NCIC system does change and evolve with some regularity.
As an aside, the agency's longest reigning Director, J. Edgar Hoover, considered the development of what would become a massive database one of his most important contributions to the criminal justice system in the United States. He personally involved himself in the early development of NCIC, having a personal penchant for record keeping since the beginning of his tenure with the organization.
Law enforcement and investigatory agencies including and beyond the FBI rely heavily on the resources of NCIC. Nearly 8 million transactions involving requests for data from NCIC process on average each and every day.
As referenced above, NCIC currently categorizes its multitude of records into 21 separate files. These files are classified into two broad categories, the first dealing with persons and the other dealing with property. The individual files maintained through NCIC are:
Criminal justice agencies of all types actually enter records into the NCIC system. Once entered into the database, these records are electronically accessible to law enforcement agencies of all types on the federal, state and local levels. Legally, only law enforcement agencies can access records in the NCIC database. These records can only be accessed for a legitimate criminal investigatory or law enforcement purpose.
An individual is able to obtain criminal history records that may be included in the NCIC system. The process involves making application for this information on a designated form maintained by the FBI. In addition, an individual seeking this data must provide a full set of fingerprints in order to verify both identity of the person making the request and to confirm that the appropriate records are retrieved and provided.
Another of the primary databases maintained by the FBI is the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System or IAFIS. IAFIS is an electronic and automated fingerprint database. IAFIS is a national fingerprint and criminal history repository.
IAFIS officially came into being on July 28, 1999. Prior to that juncture in time, the processing of fingerprints by the FBI (and other law enforcement agencies) was largely and completely a manual process.
The IAFIS actually also traces its origins back to the tenure of Hoover at the FBI. In 1924, the FBI commenced its role as the central depository for fingerprint data in the United States. Indeed, Hoover was an early advocate of the use of fingerprints in the investigation of crimes. Initially, the FBI fingerprint depository contained 800,000 records.
Today, IAFIS represents the largest fingerprint database on the planet. At the present time, IAFIS maintains the fingerprints of over 70 million individuals in its criminal master file. IAFIS maintains the fingerprints of over 30 million additional subjects in its civil master file. In addition, IAFIS now maintains over 73,000 fingerprint records of individuals suspected of or specifically identified as being terrorists.
IAFIS was established to assist in investigating, solving and preventing crime. Criminal investigatory, law enforcement and other criminal justice agencies (including courts) are permitted access to the IAFIS database for official business.
A criminal justice agency is able to gain access to the IAFIS database 24 hours a day, 365 days a week. Typically, requested information from the database is transmitted electronically to a criminal justice agency within less than 30 minutes.
In addition to maintaining fingerprint print records, IAFIS also collects mug shots, criminal history records, photographic images of tattoos, physical characteristics and aliases.
An individual is able to gain access to his or her personal record contained in the IAFIS database. The process for obtaining this information is essentially the same as that set forth to acquire similar data from NCIC. This includes completing and submitting an application for the data together with a set a fingerprints.
The National Data Exchange, of N-Dex, is of more recent origin and is also maintained by the FBI. N-Dex was created to aid in resolving problems associated with the conveyance of information and data across agency and jurisdictional boundaries. At its essence, N-Dex serves to provide an electronic and automated system for the searching, sharing, linking and analyzing data across different agency and jurisdictional boundaries.
The "linking" feature represents one of the key elements of the N-Dex system. Disparate criminal justice agencies from across the United States submit information of different types into the N-Dex repository. Once submitted, the functionality of N-Dex permits what can best be described as the "connecting of dots" between persons, places and things contained in the submitted records. This process helps to identify links between this data that might not otherwise be recognizable. In short, N-Dex is considered to be a powerful investigatory tool.
Approved agencies within the criminal justice system on the federal, state and local levels can access N-Dex any time. Access is permitted to both share information and retrieve analysis of data and developed links within the N-Dex system. The ultimate goal is to render the criminal investigatory process more effective and efficient and to enhance inter-agency cooperation.
Because by its very nature N-Dex is an investigatory tool or resource, an individual that believes he or she may have records within the system is not permitted access to that data. The information maintained by N-Dex is considered akin to investigatory files maintained by independent criminal justice agencies involved in the identification, pursuit and apprehension of suspected lawbreakers.
Next Generation Identification or NGI is a new biometric identification system in the process of being developed and implemented by the FBI. Ultimately, NGI is designed to replace the IAFIS system.
In its development, NGI is designed to incorporate a broader range of identification markers beyond traditional fingerprint records. In addition, the NGI system is designed to be able to process and provide this data at a higher rate of speed. For example, under the current IAFIS system, fingerprints from the criminal master file can take upwards to two hours for receipt. Under NGI, this data will be capable of being transmitted and received within 10 minutes in high priority situations.
NGI is being phased in over multiple years until the point in time when it is expected to fully take the place of IAFIS. The same types of agencies that are permitted to access IAFIS will also be able to utilized NGI. Ultimately, individuals will be able to request their own personal records from NGI following the same types of protocols established for IAFIS.
The FBI has enumerated the specific goals and objectives of NGI to include:
NGI is being designed and implemented by the FBI through a private sector contract with Lockheed Martin Transportation and Security Solutions. According to the FBI, upwards to nine years may be required for the full implementation of and transition to the NGI system.
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