A Year of Records for CJIS

The FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division—better known as CJIS—provides critical information to help our partners fight crime and protect the nation. Whether it’s answering a patrolman’s request for a subject’s criminal record during a traffic stop, verifying that a potential gun buyer is not a felon, or ensuring that a local municipality is not hiring a teacher who is a registered sex offender, CJIS receives millions of electronic requests every day for criminal information records and returns responses with amazing speed and accuracy.

FBI.gov recently spoke with Special Agent David Cuthbertson, the newly appointed assistant director of CJIS, about the division’s accomplishments in 2011 and what to expect from the FBI’s largest division in the future.

Q: CJIS has been described as a lifeline to law enforcement. What are some of the division’s main programs?

Cuthbertson: The term “lifeline” aptly describes what we do day in and day out at CJIS. Our main programs include NCIC—the National Crime Information Center—and the Interstate Identification Index, which is the nation’s criminal history repository. NCIC is searched by law enforcement nearly 8 million times every day. And those requests—related to stolen property and information on wanted, missing, and unidentified persons—are returned to officers on the street within fractions of a second. NICS—the National Instant Criminal Background Check System—helps keep guns out of felons’ hands. In the last fiscal year, NICS conducted more than 15.9 million background checks in accordance with federal law, and more than 76,000 gun transfers were denied based on buyers’ criminal records. Our Law Enforcement National Data Exchange—N-DEx—provides a secure, online national information-sharing system for records related to bookings, arrests, probation, and parole report data. More than 4,100 agencies contribute to N-DEx, and the system has more than 124 million searchable records. And, of course, CJIS maintains the largest collection of fingerprint records in the world. During the last fiscal year, the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System—IAFIS—identified more than 307,000 fugitives. These programs are only part of the important work we do at CJIS. Our recently released annual report highlights other programs and many of our record-setting accomplishments.

Q: Does CJIS share information with partners outside of law enforcement?

Cuthbertson: Absolutely. We provide information to the U.S. intelligence community for national security matters, and our data is also relied upon for civil uses such as criminal checks for employment and licensing. Teachers and school bus drivers, for example, are subject to background checks as required by state law, and CJIS systems provide that information to authorized users.

Q: Given the vast number of records in CJIS databases, how do you safeguard Americans’ privacy and civil liberties?

Cuthbertson: We balance civil liberties with everything we do. It’s important to remember that we only retain information related to a person’s criminal history based on lawful contacts with law enforcement. We don’t retain files on employment checks, for instance. By law, even gun background checks that come to us through NICS are destroyed every night—unless the purchase was lawfully denied. There are many similar protections in place to protect the privacy of American citizens.

Q: Since its creation in 1992 as the FBI’s central repository for criminal justice information, CJIS has experienced tremendous growth. To what do you attribute this success?

Cuthbertson: There is no question that our success is fueled by collaboration with our partners. We rely on participating agencies for data, and we organize, store, and share that data nationwide. This collective effort helps everyone leverage invaluable crime-fighting resources. Our annual Uniform Crime Report, for example, produces crime statistics that police agencies and public administrators rely on to make decisions about how they run their cities. The 2011 report included data from more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies. That’s just one of many programs that illustrate our collaborative partnerships.

Q: How has technology contributed to the success of CJIS?

Cuthbertson: A few years ago, 70,000 requests per day for fingerprint checks broke records. Now we’re seeing about 140,000 requests per day. That has everything to do with technology. We recently implemented a new fingerprint-matching algorithm that improved our reliability numbers from 92 percent to 99 percent. That’s a significant increase in accuracy, and for police officers on the street it translates into a greater ability to identify an individual claiming to be a different person. We continue to build our systems with next-generation technology, and have made billion-dollar enhancements to our biometrics program, adding facial recognition and iris scan systems to our state-of-the-art fingerprint capabilities.

Q: CJIS has a number of biometrics initiatives. Can you explain them?

Cuthbertson: Our Biometric Center of Excellence represents the FBI’s investment in staying current with emerging technologies. Leveraging our academic partnerships with West Virginia University and other institutions, the center supports and analyzes new research so that we can take these cutting-edge technologies and use them operationally. On the international front, CJIS serves in an advisory role to foreign governments that are either developing biometrics systems from the ground up or expanding existing systems. We work closely with the U.S. Departments of State and Homeland Security to put biometrics agreements in place with foreign governments that will guarantee interoperability. Here at home, we have partnered with the Department of Defense to build a Biometrics Technology Center on our campus in Clarksburg, West Virginia. The center is under construction and scheduled for completion in the spring of 2014. It will be a tremendous resource to carry us into the future.

Q: What else can we expect from CJIS in the future?

Cuthbertson: We are well-positioned for success going forward. I anticipate expansion of our legally mandated biometrics and identity verification programs regarding visa issuance and other areas related to foreign travel. We need to continue to help states and federal agencies that protect the nation’s borders. We are also expanding our systems to include latent palm print functionality. Beginning next year, the FBI will have the ability to search palm prints for the first time. Studies have shown that a significant percentage of crime scene marks or latent prints are actually palm prints. With this enhancement to our systems, we will identify more criminals. We are very proud of the work being done at CJIS and look forward to continued success in the future.

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