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The FBI database isn’t what it’s cracked up to be

February 12, 2013

The Federal Bureau of Investigation keeps a listing of identifying information taken from fingerprints submitted voluntarily by various criminal justice agencies in connection with arrests, or relating to naturalization or military service.  Many employers are under the impression that this FBI identification database is the “gold standard” in background screening. In reality, the background screening community considers the FBI’s database as a tool to be used but not reliable enough as a single source for a background check.

This is because the FBI database is simply not a thorough-enough resource for background screening. Having been arrested and fingerprinted may not help your job candidate land a job, but if such experiences did not result in a criminal conviction, such critical disposition information is likely to be missing from a person’s “rap sheet.”  Thus, relying on the FBI database alone doesn’t paint the whole picture.

According to a 2006 Department of Justice (DOJ) report entitled The Attorney General’s Report on Criminal History Background Checks, the authors state that “the [FBI’s Interstate Identification Index] is missing final disposition information for approximately 50% of its records.”

The same report goes on to state that, “contrary to common perception, the FBI’s [Interstate Identification Index] is not a complete national database of all criminal history records in the United States. Many state records, whether from law enforcement agencies or courts, are not included or have not been updated.”

A recent New York Times article (December 20, 2012) states, “While some states, including New York, have submitted more than 100,000 names of mentally ill people to the FBI database, 19 — including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Maryland and Maine — have submitted fewer than 100 records and Rhode Island has submitted none, according to federal data compiled by Mayors Against Illegal Guns.”  

FBI background checks are not available for all employers. There must be a federal law or state statute requiring the FBI check. Unfortunately when legislators pass these laws and statutes they do not understand the lack of information available through these searches. When required to rely on the FBI database, employers should be aware of the potential pitfalls of using the system.

Reputable background screening agencies, like Hire Image, have developed court researcher networks that cover all U.S. jurisdictions. With over 3,100 counties, boroughs, parishes and independent cities in the United States, it may not be possible to have third party vendor fingerprinting stations serving all jurisdictions in the same manner. Since the FBI database relies on voluntary submissions of identifying information from fingerprinting, one can only imagine the margin of error that is possible.

The same report by the DOJ also admits, “no single source exists that provides complete and up-to-date information about a person’s criminal history.”  If you choose to rely on any single database that has incomplete, erroneous, or incorrect information, you could be putting your business, employees and customers at risk.  A thorough background screen will include several types of searches to cast the widest net possible in screening the potential employee.

Have all of your background checks done with a reliable background screening company like Hire Image.


Hire Image CEO Christine Cunneen testified regarding the FBI Database on behalf of the National Association of Professional Background Screeners at an IRS Public Hearing on October 7, 2011. Click here to read the transcript.

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