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New policy brings new UM background check method

Wednesday, October 3, 2007 | 7:19 p.m. CDT; updated 1:19 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The company hired by the University of Missouri System to handle criminal background checks of new faculty and staff prides itself on the more than 600 researchers who enter courthouses across the country every day to comb through records. But, while Validity Screening Solutions will conduct more comprehensive background checks, the company’s methods are susceptible to error.

Validity, a private firm that has responsibility for UM’s background checks under a new policy that took effect Monday, will rely on name-based searches, which, according to a 1999 study carried out for the U.S. Attorney General’s Office, can often result in the inclusion of records wrongly attributed to the person being investigated.

Comparison of systems

THEN

Organization conducting the background checks: Missouri State Highway Patrol. Type of organization: public government agency; division of the Missouri Department of Public Safety. Type of search: name-based (most common method and least expensive). Criteria used: name, date of birth, Social Security number; record must match two of three to be included in check. Method of search: database search, includes the state sex offender registry. Scope of search: MU database, statewide. Cost: $9 per search. Other search options: Fingerprint-based searches can be conducted for $20 per search. Allowance for results to be challenged by individuals: yes.

NOW

Organization conducting the background checks: Validity Screening Solutions. Type of organization: private firm. Type of search: name-based. Criteria used: name, date of birth; social security number only used to obtain address history. Method of search: live courthouse search. Scope of search: generally confined to areas where individual has lived, but Validity has ability to search every county in the U.S. Cost: varies depending on components of search. Other search options: none; fingerprint-based searches not conducted, but Validity can partner with companies that offer those services Allowance for results to be challenged by individuals: yes. Source: Missouri State Highway Patrol, Validity Screening Solutions


The system’s background check policy now includes criminal record searches of all new faculty and staff hires. Validity replaces the Missouri State Highway Patrol, which performed background checks for the system using databases limited to Missouri records. The new policy has raised concerns among some faculty, including members of the MU Faculty Council.

Frank Schmidt, professor of biochemistry and Faculty Council chair, said criminal background checks are “notoriously inaccurate.”

And they can be, said Capt. Tim McGrail of the Highway Patrol’s Criminal Records and Identification Division. McGrail said the most reliable and accurate method to check the background of a person is a fingerprint-based search, citing a study by the National Task Force on Interstate Identification Index Name Check Efficacy.

“When we do a name check, we can’t guarantee that this is the individual,” McGrail said. “The only way we could guarantee that we are giving the correct record on an individual is if we were given fingerprints.”

The national task force analyzed the criminal history background checks of more than 93,000 people. Background checks based on Automated Fingerprint Identification Systems were found to be “extremely accurate,” resulting in error rates of “a small fraction of 1 percent of all searches.” By contrast, the report stated, “Criminal history background checks based solely on non-unique identifiers, such as name, sex, race and date of birth, are known to result in significant numbers of two types of errors, generally referred to as ‘false positives’ and ‘false negatives.’”

False positives are when an individual is associated with records that belong to another person; false negatives are when the search fails to find all records associated with a person.

The report estimated that if the background searches had been name-based only, approximately 5 percent would have resulted in a false positive and 1 percent would have resulted in a false negative.

McGrail said the Highway Patrol can search by fingerprints, but those searches are requested less often than name searches in part because they cost more than twice as much.

While Validity does not conduct fingerprint-based searches, Katie Hartley of Validity’s internal communications office said the company is confident of its methods. Validity employees physically enter the nation’s courthouses and search through records of felonies and misdemeanors instead of browsing through online databases. She said databases can provide inaccurate or incomplete information if they are not updated regularly, but the room for error in live research is minimal.

“The only time we’d have that concern is if the courthouse made a mistake,” she said.


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