The FBI’s Rap Back program is quietly transforming the way employers conduct background checks. While routine background checks provide employers with a one-time “snapshot” of their employee’s past criminal history, employers enrolled in federal and state Rap Back programs receive ongoing, real-time notifications and updates about their employees’ run-ins with law enforcement, including arrests at protests and charges that do not end up in convictions. (“Rap” is an acronym for Record of Arrest and Prosecution; “Back” is short for background.) Testifying before Congress about the program in 2015, FBI Director James Comey explained some limits of regular background checks: “People are clean when they first go in, then they get in trouble five years down the road [and] never tell the daycare about this.”
A majority of states already have their own databases that they use for background checks and have accessed in-state Rap Back programs since at least 2007; states and agencies now partnering with the federal government will be entering their data into the FBI’s Next Generation Identification database. The NGI database, widely considered to be the world’s largest biometric database, allows federal and state agencies to search more than 70 million civil fingerprints submitted for background checks alongside over 50 million prints submitted for criminal purposes. In July 2015, Utah became the first state to join the federal Rap Back program. Last April, aviation workers at Dallas-Ft. Worth Airport and Boston Logan International Airport began participating in a federal Rap Back pilot program for aviation employees. Two weeks ago, Texas submitted its first request to the federal criminal Rap Back system.
Rap Back has been advertised by the FBI as an effort to target individuals in “positions of trust,” such as those who work with children, the elderly, and the disabled. According to a Rap Back spokesperson, however, there are no formal limits as to “which populations of individuals can be enrolled in the Rap Back Service.” Civil liberties advocates fear that under Trump’s administration the program will grow with serious consequences for employee privacy, accuracy of records, and fair employment practices.