Civil rights groups expressed concern yesterday about a Justice Department proposal to expand the FBI's national computer system to include information about persons under investigation for white-collar crimes.
Police use the system -- the National Crime Information Center -- to determine if an individual has been named in an arrest warrant elswhere. All information is on the public record except for data on missing persons, stolen property and persons who have indicated an interest in harming the president.
Under the proposed expansion, more than 60,000 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies could enter information about persons being investigated for serious economic crimes. They need not have been charged, and the information about them could include unverified speculation and reports about their associates.
If two or more agencies entered information about the same person, each would be notified of the other's interest. The agencies then could request FBI authorization for access to the information from the other agencies, according to a Justice Department official.
Critics of the expansion, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.), said it would violate individuals' rights because it would include "raw investigatory data" that is not in public records, including suspicions, leads and observations of law enforcement officers. They also say it is unfair to include such information about persons who have not been charged with crimes.
"Certainly, we must fight crime, at all levels in our society," Edwards wrote this week to Associate Attorney General D. Lowell Jensen. "But we also have an obligation to preserve our fundamental constitutional liberties, including the right to privacy and the presumption of innocence."
Edwards wrote that he would be "much less concerned" if the proposed expansion of information were limited to use by the FBI. A "central concern," Edwards wrote, "is the broad availability of the system."
Edwards, chairman of the House subcommittee on civil and constitutional rights, said his panel will hold a hearing on the proposed expansion.
Allan Adler, ACLU's legislative counsel, said the proposal would violate the principles of the Privacy Act, which allows federal agencies under certain circumstances to distribute information on individuals to other federal agencies that is "timely, accurate and complete."
"When you're dealing with criminal intelligence rather than public information," the information is more likely to be inaccurate, Adler said.
Jensen said in an earlier letter to Edwards that the department is considering the expansion because white-collar crime is "difficult to investigate," partly because of the "lack of an efficient means of exchanging information about white-collar criminals whose crimes . . . affect victims in several jurisdictions."
Currently, Jensen wrote, investigative agencies exchange information about white-collar crime suspects on an "ad hoc, hit-or-miss basis, with none of the routine efficiency that is required for uncovering sophisticated offenses."
Jensen said the proposal "will lead to the eventual adoption of a system that is not only effective, but eminently reasonable."