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Fighting the Police Computer System
by Stan Robinson
The National Crime Information Center (NCIC)
During the last several years, the FBI has been developing a computer-accessed data bank as part of an automated nationwide police information network. The central element of this network, the National Crime Information Center is financed by the federal government under the so-called Organized Crime and Safe Streets Act of 1968. The system is also supported by the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), a federal agency which has received funding from the Ford Foundation as a part of a program to encourage the professionalization of the police.
Although the FBI maintains the central computer, state and local police are encouraged to participate in the use and development of this system. Teletypes installed at local police stations are connected by local phone lines to state police computer centers, which in turn are connected by leased lines to the central computer in Washington D.C. Large cities have their own citywide computerized networks connected to the state centers.
The FBI uses slick little booklets to urge local participation in the system. The telephone company helps too. Last year, for example, the sales staff of the New England Telephone Company visited 117 towns in Massachusetts to educate local boards and committees about the need for NCIC in modern police operation. Ma Bell gladly leases both the teletypes and telephone lines at a handsome profit.
Federal financial assistance also encourages the widespread use of this system. Towns in Massachusetts pay on only their individual teletype rental, about $2000 annually, to join NCIC. At first, to lure the towns in painlessly, a 40% federal subsidy was provided to reduce this rental cos cost further. Now with more than 160 towns connected to NCIC, the subsidy is ending. Federal funds also subsidize the expenses borne by the state, including the cost of the telephone lines and the computer center operation.
Because of indirect financing and professional selling, NCIC has begun operating almost entirely without the knowledge or approval of the public that it fundamentally affects.
Currently, NCIC is a repository of information on arrests, warrants, and stolen property. The Massachusetts section, for example, provides “immediate information on stolen cars, missing and wanted persons, lost and stolen property, lost and stolen securities, stolen guns, outstanding warrants, narcotic drug intelligence, and suspended and revoked drivers’ licenses and automobile registrations.” This fall, NCIC plans to give its users access to the first 19 million individual citizens’ arrest records-records on nearly 10% of the country’s population. Euphemistically called criminal histories, (making it sound as if any person who was ever arrested has a history of criminality) these records are intended to help police make decisions about arresting, searching, detaining, questioning, and investigating suspects and offenders.
The availability of this information permits quite varied services, including the recovery of stolen automobiles and runaway children. An FBI pamphlet also encourages clever use of the system such as the arrest of suspicious persons for disorderly conduct in order to facilitate an NCIC check.
Although the system is already in operation, it is still possible for people to fight it. An example of such a fight has taken place in the annual town meeting for the past two years in Wayland, Massachusetts.
Fighting the Police Computer in Town Meeting
Wayland is one of the bedroom suburbs of Boston located just off famous Route 128, home of electronics and computer industries. It has a population of 3500 families with a median family income of $17,500.
Because of its small size, Wayland is governed by a town meeting at which all attending residents can vote. Among other functions, the town meeting has the power-of-purse over the local administration; in practice, the town’s budget is drawn up by the Board of Selectmen and an appointed Finance Committee and submitted to the town meeting for approval. Approval is not quite automatic, however, and every year some items are amended or deleted from the proposed budget.
In 1970, the proposed budget for Wayland’s police department included an item entitled “Tele-Process (NCIC).” With little preparation, a motion was made to delete the item from the budget. Although this move surprised the Board of Selectmen, they were able to made a few statements about the necessity and usefulness of the NCIC facility to the town. The budget item was retained by a 3 to 1 margin.
The same budget line appeared in the proposed appropriation for the police department for 1971. This time, however, the attempt to get rid of NCIC’s presence in Wayland was somewhat more organized. An informal group of concerned citizens wrote and distributed a short leaflet to those attending the town meeting. When the NCIC budget item came up for discussion, a motion was again made to delete it from the budget. A spokesman pointed out that the exact purpose and use of the NCIC had never been explained to the voters. He suggested that because of its capacity for chilling the rights of free speech and free association, local use of NCIC should be discontinued until the system was more thoroughly explained.
The Board of Slectmen were also more prepared for the challenge this time. One member said that he thought it would be a shame to deprive the police department of one of their most modern pieces of equipment. Another added that the NCIC computer had proven invaluable to the department. The police chief said that of six runaways last year, four were returned as a direct result of NCIC. “NCIC is used for the protection of the people as a deterrent of crime. It is not a Defense Department monitor of citizens,” he stated.
The budget item was retained by an approximately 2 to 1 vote.
At the second session of the meeting, however, the concerned citizens had another chance. A motion was introduced which would require that “the Police Department be directed to included in next year’s Annual Report a statistical tabulation of its usage of the NCIC computer system.” The report would include the following information: “1. number of inquiries by type of inquiry and the reason for the inquiry; 2. results of inquiries including arrests and known conviction; 3. a similar summary of information entered by Wayland police; and 4. troubles encountered (down time, false arrests, invasion of rights, etc.).”
This time a lively debate ensued. One of the selectmen said the motion would require too much expensive clerical work and that there were no funds to implement it. A voter retorted that the information was probably already available. Several members of the town meeting who had not previously worked against NCIC began to speak out against the system. A School Committeeman said that it was not too much to ask the police department to report and that he felt that there was a great potential for the system to be misused. Another voter said, “If I’m paying for it, I’d like to know what I’m getting for my money.” Another town resident said that he had spent some of the best years of his life fighting the Gestapo and that the idea that such a system would be misused is far from ridiculous. The motion was carried.
Few of us have any illusions about the ability of such a reporting requirement to stop or even hamper the NCIC. The importance of this limited victory is not in its immediate effect on the FBI but lies in the lessons we can draw from it.
First, it is quite impossible to reverse or eliminate decisions backed by federal and corporate power without the active and sustained intervention of a sizable, well organized and well-informed community group. Such a group did not exist in Wayland where the efforts to oppose NCIC were small-scale and spontaneous.
Second, the concession that was won is quite easily circumvented. Who polices the police? How is such a reporting requirement going to be enforced if the police are quite opposed to cooperating?
Third, even though the FBI advertises the NCIC as a deterrent to crime and as a criminal information system, it is nothing more than an elaborate means to keep track of and control people.
A nationwide network of such expensive computer equipment is at once a source of enormous corporate profits and a powerful tool in the hands of one class to be used to insure the smooth operation of the capitalist system by instilling fear and submission in the people. It is only recently that the middle-class has begun to awaken to this reality, poor and black people have known it for a lon long time. After all, one major function of the police, the welfare snoopers, inferior medical services, etc. is to humiliate and coerce people into submission For suburbanites the pill is sugarcoated and presented in the name of science, efficiency and modern equipment.
Because the ruling class defines the rules of the game and is capable of backing it up by force, it is no surprise that the deaths resulting from slumloards’ neglect, the physical and spiritual crippling through mindless work and exploitation by business, the destruction of cities and countryside by industrial developers for profit, the wanton killing and robbing of countries already impoverished by centuries of imperialism, are not called crimes. These are legitimate practices sanctioned by their system of justice. Instead, NCIC is intended to keep track of purse snatchers, pot smokers, political activists, and other types of suspicious persons.
In fact, it is the victims of crime rather than the criminals who are the objects of NCIC’s real interests.
As we realize that this information system is designed to keep track of the victims of crimes rather than the real criminals, we should also see that it is the criminals and not the victims who have access to the information kept on file. For example, the Lenexa, Kansas Police Department was using its terminals (which access the computer center of the Kansas City Police Department, and through it, NCIC) to inquire, upon request of Lenexa apartment owners, into arrest and conviction records of prospective tenants of their apartments. In defending this free service to the businessmen of Lenexa, a spokesman for for the Lenexa Police Department pointed out that several undesirables had thus been kept out of that little city. Similarly, information from the New York State Identification and Intelligence System (NYSIIS) has been sold to American Airlines, Pinkerton’s, Burns Detective Agency, and Retail Credit Company, the nation’s largest insurance investigating agency which itself has 45 million dossiers. Under a 1969 law, member firms of the New York Stock exchange have access, via NYSIIS, to the complete rap sheets of all of their employees.
Those who might argue that these examples are instances of the misuse of the system fail to see that in fact this was the way the system was designed to be used; NCIC (and the state versions such as NYSIIS) is designed to facilitate the compilation and retrieval of dossiers. Like the retail credit data banks, it is designed for the convenience of people who use and keep dossiers. Those who feel that the system was intended for use by the guardians of justice fail to perceive that in our society, the banks, landlords, and employers are the guardians of justice. It is their own justice that they are guarding whether they do it themselves or have the police and national guard do it for them. Computer systems, in this society, are tools of the ruling class.
With these realizations, it should be clear that attempts to keep NCIC and other data banks, but including provisions for the safeguard of privacy and individual rights, are beside the point.