FBI data management a tough case

Converting data to electronic form is only a start toward solving the FBI's records problems

With snipers picking off people in the Washington, D.C., area in October and police pleading with the public for information, the FBI set up a phone center to receive tips and rolled out its Rapid Start Information Management System to help sort them.

It sounds like an efficient, technology-driven process until described in more detail.

Workers who staffed the phones, including trainees from the FBI's academy in Quantico, Va., scribbled notes of their phone conversations on paper forms. Once an hour, the forms were dumped into a box and delivered to the FBI Records Management Division. There, they were fed into scanners to be digitized before they could be added to the Rapid Start database, explained William Hooton, the FBI's assistant director and chief of records management.

The process illustrates the progress the FBI has made — and the distance it still has to go — to bring its records management capabilities into the modern world.

Last spring, Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine ripped the FBI and urged the disciplining of four agents for mishandling records in the Oklahoma City bombing case. The discovery of thousands of misplaced records forced a month-long delay in the execution of bomber Timothy McVeigh.

Fine blamed antiquated computer systems, but he blamed human error more for the FBI field offices' failure to turn investigation records over when ordered.

In response to the records fiasco, the FBI hired Hooton, an electronic records expert with experience at the Internal Revenue Service, the National Archives and Records Administration, and private industry, and created a new 1,000-person Records Management Division.

Today, the division runs "10 production lines of scanners" and aims to convert 750,000 paper documents a day into digital records, Hooton said in a Nov. 14 address to the Association for Information and Image Management.

Once scanned, the electronic documents are stored in a database where they can be searched, mined and made available to FBI field offices.

But converting such huge amounts of data to a more manageable electronic form is only a start toward solving the FBI's records problems, Hooton said.

After more than 90 years of collecting paper records, "we don't know what we have and what we don't have. We need to inventory our holdings," he said.

Other FBI managers have estimated that the agency has more than a billion records.

Hooton said he hopes to sort them into "three piles," one being "trash" that should be destroyed. Hooton figures that's about half of the records. A second pile called "popular records" should be converted to electronic form and retained because they have been retrieved at least once in the past five or 10 years, he said. And a pile of "unpopular records" that have not been used, but must be kept. Those should only be made digital if they are requested, he said.

The process of digitizing, organizing and managing the FBI's records will never be complete, Hooton said. Even when all the old records have been inventoried, scanned and entered into databases, there will be a steady flow of new records, he said.

Meanwhile, the FBI must tackle some other thorny records issues, such as "what constitutes an e-mail record?" Hooton said. "No one has the answer now."

Similarly elusive is the answer to what constitutes a Web page record. And the Records Management Division needs help deciding whether it can destroy paper records once electronic copies have been made, he said.

And before the FBI finishes installing a modern computer infrastructure so that records can be accessed by agents around the world, Hooton said he must tackle records security issues. He said he favors maintaining centralized control over FBI records even if the records are physically housed in geographically dispersed locations.