OneDOJ Database Stirs Privacy Fears

The Justice Department has teamed with police departments from around the country to create the OneDOJ database. People are concerned about the privacy implications.

The Justice Department is building a massive database that allows state and local police officers around the country to search millions of case files from the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and other federal law enforcement agencies, according to Justice officials. The system, known as “OneDOJ,” already holds approximately 1 million case records and is projected to triple in size over the next three years, Justice officials said. The files include investigative reports, criminal-history information, details of offenses, and the names, addresses and other information of criminal suspects or targets, officials said.

The database is billed by its supporters as a much-needed step toward better information-sharing with local law enforcement agencies, which have long complained about a lack of cooperation from the federal government. But civil-liberties and privacy advocates say the scale and contents of such a database raise immediate privacy and civil rights concerns, in part because tens of thousands of local police officers could gain access to personal details about people who have not been arrested or charged with crimes.

[…]

McNulty and other Justice officials emphasize that the information available in the database already is held individually by the FBI and other federal agencies. Much information will be kept out of the system, including data about public corruption cases, classified or sensitive topics, confidential informants, administrative cases and civil rights probes involving allegations of wrongdoing by police, officials said.

But civil-liberties and privacy advocates — many of whom are already alarmed by the proliferation of federal databases — warn that granting broad access to such a system is almost certain to invite abuse and lead to police mistakes.

Barry Steinhardt, director of the Technology and Liberty Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, said the main problem is one of “garbage in, garbage out,” because case files frequently include erroneous or unproved allegations. “Raw police files or FBI reports can never be verified and can never be corrected,” Steinhardt said. “That is a problem with even more formal and controlled systems. The idea that they’re creating another whole system that is going to be full of inaccurate information is just chilling.”

Jeralyn Merritt agrees, saying “This is an intrusive program that should be stopped” and that “This is just another example of how the Administration’s excuse of a war on terror affects not those abroad, but those of us at home. It won’t make us safer, only less free.”

Frankly, I don’t see it. I have plenty of concerns about police abuse, especially at the local level where barely trained, semi-educated policemen have enormous discretionary power in the use of force. It seems obvious, though, that the ability to access data across state lines provides far more benefit than potential harm.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, there was much hand wringing about the stovepiping of police and intelligence data. But it’s far, far more likely that we could stop serial killers and track child molesters by removing those barriers than catching first-time terrorists. Indeed, one wonders how many brutal crimes could have been prevented if only police had access to existing law enforcement information about suspects?

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Bandit says:

    the local level where barely trained semi-educated policemen

    One thing you can always count on is JJ putting down people who work for a living.

  2. Mark says:

    one wonders how many brutal crimes could have been prevented if only police had access to existing law enforcement information about suspects?

    I agree this is one of the questions to ask. Another one is: “one wonders how many innocent people will be caught up as a result of inaccurate info in the new database”. There are probably other questions to ask too before this moves forward.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    It seems to me that two very different concepts are being conflated by the critics of OneDOJ: privacy and anonymity. The courts have recognized a generalized right to privacy; no generalized right of anonymity is similary recognized. How, precisely, does sharing of information that is of public record among different jurisdictions jeopardize a right to privacy? Yes, it would improve the visibility of people committing crimes in one jurisdiction in other jurisidictions, but there’s no violation of privacy in it.

    How, other than being more efficient, is this different from the police in one jurisdiction phoning or receiving faxes from another? That’s a practice that goes back decades.

    I think that Steinhardt’s criticism of the quality of the information is valid although not a privacy criticism. Wouldn’t the solution to that problem be higher quality, greater access, more transparency, and a process for challenging and revising information in the database?

  4. Big brother is always watching! We are one nation under surveillance.

  5. legion says:

    The system, known as “OneDOJ,” already holds approximately 1 million case records and is projected to triple in size over the next three years, Justice officials said. The files include investigative reports, criminal-history information, details of offenses, and the names, addresses and other information of criminal suspects or targets, officials said.

    And this is being done by the same DoJ that still can’t get even moderately-obsolete PCs onto the desktop of every FBI agent? Or build a enterprise network to connect them to basic resources? I’ll stop worrying now.

  6. Anderson says:

    barely trained semi-educated policemen

    Bandit, we get the cops we pay for.

    Of course I’m worried about abuses of this system; but I’m *more* worried about not having it in place. Let’s make it a federal crime w/ hard time to misuse this system for personal reasons, & move on with it.

  7. Billy says:

    Dave’s point is spot on – this is already publicly available information, and any abuses that individuals wish to commit are already well within their grasp.

    The fact is that this doesn’t change anything other than state and local law enforcement’s logistical ability to access the information they are already entitled to view (and that they should be viewing so they can do their jobs correctly). Of course that makes certain abuses a bit easier to commit, but no more so than does access to the internet make certain crimes (e.g., financial) easier. If state and local officials will abuse this system, they’re already abusing the current one and this won’t change that.

    I’m as afraid of overreach by law enforcement as anyone I know, but this is just common sense.

  8. Bandit says:

    we get the cops we pay for.

    The great thing about you is you never let not knowing wtf you’re talking about get in your way

  9. Steve Verdon says:

    Bandit,

    Your article is misleading in that one reason why the Boston cops get paid so much is more overtime. Hence their base pay is in line with the rest of the country. From your article,

    Base pay for Boston patrolmen is similar to that in other big departments around the country — about $53,426 annually. But Boston officers supplement their salaries with more overtime on average than officers in nine of the nation’s 10 largest police departments; only New York City’s $16,000 per officer topped Boston’s $8,520 in 2002, the most recent year for which data are widely available.

    And even if it were true that Boston cops were paid the most on an hourly basis that doesn’t negate Anderson’s point necessarily. If we are paying a wage rate that gets poorly trained/poorly educated police officers, then it doesn’t have to be the case that a slightly higher hourly wage would improve the situation all that much.

    In regards to this system, my general view is that more information is generally better. One reason why institutions like markets fail is incomplete and asymmetrical information. Of course, bad information doesn’t help this situation and I am doubtful of the government’s ability to provide clean data. So, I guess I’m more on the fence on this issue than Anderson or James.

  10. Anderson says:

    So, I guess I’m more on the fence on this issue than Anderson or James.

    Oh, I’m sure it will be done badly at first, but that’s an inescapable prelude to doing it well eventually. I still think we could’ve thrown a wrench into 9/11, or stopped it, with a pretty basic level of info sharing & computerization.

    As for Bandit and Boston’s finest, I am happy to concede that Boston cops are the guardians straight out of Plato’s Republic, if Bandit says so; but down here in the provinces, we are evidently not attracting fine minds or characters to our police forces. The happy exceptions do not prove the rule.

  11. James Joyner says:

    Bandit,

    I must admit, I’m not sure what point you are making. Are there well-trained local cops out there? Sure. Do some cities pay their cops reasonably well? Yes. Are both those the exceptions to the rule? Yup.

    Am I absolutely comfortable with the idea of people with nothing more than a high school education (or GED) and a few hours of training being put out on the street with firearms and awesome discretionary powers? No, I’m not.

  12. El says:

    CIA is moving to DIA/NSA so what’s the problem?

    US Intelligence is becoming a larger entity based on what already exists, not that there’s no overlap or double checking anymore, but that’s really not important………..

  13. Bandit says:

    I must admit, I’m not sure what point you are making.

    I thought I was pretty clear – I could go back to other posts but whenever you refer to people who work in non white collar jobs you condescend to them as ignorant and uneducated.

    Boston’s rank-and-file police officers brought home $78,906 on average in 2002, and those who earned higher-education degrees made considerably more.

    Since this was prior to the contractagreement prior to the ’04 convention where the union negotiated a 14.5%/4yr increase – I would ask what you would consider this poorly paid in compared to what? And I guess those higher-education degrees are more evidence of lack of education and poor training.

    Are there well-trained local cops out there? Sure. Do some cities pay their cops reasonably well? Yes. Are both those the exceptions to the rule? Yup

    .

    Sorry – just more of your condescending bullshit.

  14. Ugh says:

    Sorry – just more of your condescending bullshit.

    And yet here you are, subjecting yourself to it time after time after time.

  15. Anderson says:

    And yet here you are, subjecting yourself to it time after time after time.

    He can’t find a cop in Boston to beat him up, b/c they’re such professionals … so Bandit has to satisfy his masochism in less direct fashion.

  16. Bandit says:

    Andy – thnx for the ad hom insult -much appreciated and completely expected!

    can’t find a cop in Boston to beat him up

    I’m sure you wouldn’t have the same problem.

  17. Anderson says:

    Lighten up, Bandito. It’s the internets.