This article will help you:
- Compare name-based background checks with biometric/fingerprinting approaches
- Understand the limitations of each type of search
The term “background check” can refer to either name-based searches (which are used by the majority of background check companies) and biometric or fingerprint searches (which are used primarily by law enforcement).
Fingerprinting or biometric searches such as "Live Scan" are required by law for certain industries, and it is also used in law enforcement, but the approach has drawbacks that many employers aren’t aware of.
The majority of pre-employment background checks are conducted using a name-based approach.
When background check companies conduct a name-based search, they use a candidate’s personally identifiable information (PII) to search for criminal history and other information. PII includes not just the candidate’s name, but also information like:
- Date of Birth (DOB)
- Social Security Number (SSN)
- Driver’s License Number
The candidate’s PII allows the background check company to look broadly for information using national and local sources. If the search turns up records that match the candidate’s PII, that information will be used as a “pointer” to specific county, state or federal jurisdictions. The background check company then conducts a search, at the source, in these jurisdictions.
As a result of this process, name-based searches can return information from national and local databases, as well as federal and county courts, in a matter of days.
Fingerprinting and biometric searches
Certain law enforcement groups, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), use fingerprinting or other biometric data as a way to find suspects’ criminal histories. FBI database screenings are only available to employers who have legal authority. In other words, access is authorized by statute, and not all parties can be granted access.
The FBI fingerprinting database, like many other criminal record databases, collects criminal record information from state and local law enforcement sources. Searches return an FBI Identification Record, which contains information tied to arrests, federal employment, naturalization, or military service -- in other words, times when an individual would have been fingerprinted.
However, because the information in the database is meant for law enforcement and not for employers, it is often missing information such as the final disposition of a record.
In other words, it may reveal an arrest record, but not show that the arrest later led to a dismissal. This type of information is missing in roughly 50% of cases, according to the U.S. Attorney General’s report (https://www.gao.gov/assets/670/668505.pdf page 19).
According to the National Association of Professional Background Screeners (NAPBS), fingerprint-based background checks are a useful tool when conducting background screening, but they don’t provide a comprehensive history and should not be solely relied upon for obtaining complete and up-to-date information.
Comparing name-based and fingerprinting approaches
While both name-based and fingerprint-based approaches both have pros and cons, it is widely accepted among background check experts that name-based searches are the preferred method for conducting background checks for employment-related or tenant screening purposes. The primary exception is for industries or locations that require fingerprint searches by law -- and even then, they should be used to supplement, not replace, name-based searches.
Consider the following when comparing fingerprinting to name-based searches.
Although there is a commonly held belief that fingerprinting is the most comprehensive way to identify criminal records, the FBI database (like any individual source) does not always contain complete information. A fingerprint search only reflects information received by the FBI from states and municipalities. When you use the FBI database, you’ll find information collected when a suspect was arrested and fingerprinted, which doesn’t apply to 100% of the information in a background check.
In 2015, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found significant gaps in the FBI database as many state and local jurisdictions fail to report arrest records or dispositions to the FBI.
Among the GAO’s recommendations:
- To improve disposition reporting that would help states update and complete criminal history records, the Director of the FBI should task the FBI Advisory Policy Board to establish a plan with timeframes and milestones for achieving its Disposition Task Force's stated goals.
- To better equip states to meet the regulatory requirement to notify individuals of their rights to challenge and update information in their criminal history records, and to ensure that audit findings are resolved, the Director of the FBI, in coordination with the Compact Council, should determine why states do not comply with the requirement to notify candidates and use this information to revise its state educational programs accordingly.
According to a report from the U.S. Attorney General, “The FBI’s system is not a complete national database of all criminal history records in the United States” and that it was not intended to be used for pre-employment background checks. Furthermore, “Users may not want to rely exclusively on an FBI and state repository checks and may also want to check other record sources, such as commercial databases and local courthouses, to obtain more complete and up-to-date information.”
Consumer Reporting Agencies (CRAs) like Checkr are required by federal law to conduct searches with “maximum possible accuracy.” This means that we must ensure that the records returned are as complete and up-to-date as possible.
According to research by the Consumer Data Industry Association (CDIA), FBI database information can take as long as 24 days to report, and court disposition information can take over a month. This means that information in the FBI database may not be as up-to-date as information from a CRA.
Additionally, when you evaluate criminal records, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission advises you to avoid disparate impact, where a seemingly neutral policy actually has an outsized effect on minority populations. Remember that many FBI arrest records don’t include final dispositions; in some jurisdictions with active police presence, relying on incomplete arrest data can potentially lead you to consider records that were dismissed, or that aren’t relevant to the job position. Making decisions based on incomplete information can unnecessarily disqualify candidates and create legal risk for your business.
Unlike pre-employment background checks, FBI records are not affected by consumer protection laws like the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). They often lack personally identifiable information (PII), such as full name and date of birth. If this PII is missing, it becomes difficult to ensure maximum possible accuracy of records, increasing the risk of litigation.
For pre-employment background screenings, turnaround time is essential. As you support your candidates’ placement and onboarding schedules, you generally don’t want to wait any longer than possible for sources to return information.
Another overlooked difference between name-based and fingerprint background checks is access to fingerprinting facilities. Because name-based background checks do not require the physical submission of biometric data, they introduce much less friction into the onboarding process. Individuals living in small towns and rural areas may find it difficult and time consuming to access a fingerprinting facility.
The average name-based background check takes three to five days to complete, while FBI fingerprinting results typically take longer -- in some cases, even weeks.
In summary, while fingerprinting may be used as a component of background checks in certain regulated industries, they should neither be used as the only source of information, nor regarded as a comprehensive source of records. Name-based searches return more comprehensive data than fingerprints, are completed faster, and ensure maximum possible accuracy of records.