All you need to do is type in a few key words into Google and headlines pop up promising easy access to FBI criminal records. But when you click on the link, it goes nowhere or to a background screening company’s Web site which then states that it searches public records only, and makes no further mention of the teasing lead.

And except for a few non-government entities, such ones performing authorized criminal justice functions under contract with law enforcement agencies, entities whose purpose is to provide information to authorized agencies to facilitate the apprehension of fugitives or locate missing persons and stolen property, or similar objectives, and federally chartered banking institutions, their bank subsidiaries and direct affiliates, the records are off-limits to the public. Of course, an individual can request his/her own record, typically for a personal review, to challenge the information on file, to meet a requirement for adopting a child in the U.S. or internationally, to satisfy a mandate to live, work, or travel in a foreign country, or to obtain certain professional licenses.

So exactly what is the FBI’s National Crime Information Center? The NCIC, as it is commonly known, is the United States’ central database for tracking crime related information. Maintained by the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division, the NCIC is interlinked with similar systems held by each state. Data is received from federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies, along with railroad police, and non-law enforcement agencies, such as state and federal motor vehicle registration and licensing authorities.

The NCIC was launched January 27, 1967 with five files and 356,784 records. By the end of 2009, it amassed more than 15 million active records in 19 files, separated into seven property files containing records of stolen articles, boats, guns, license plates, parts, securities, and vehicles, and 12 person-related files containing information in connection with supervised releases, national sex offender registry, foreign fugitives, immigration violators, missing persons, protection orders, unidentified persons, U.S. Secret Service protective list, gangs, known or suspected terrorists, wanted persons, and identity theft. Also a part of the system is the Interstate Identification Index, which provides images that can be associated with NCIC records to help identify people and property items.

The database is not infallible. Its many critics say that the underfunded system is limited in content, contains errors and has outdated information. But the black market for NCIC records is flourishing, despite risks of prison time and financial penalties. While in most instances the motivation for misuse is monetary gain, in an extreme example of personal incentive, a former law enforcement officer in Arizona obtained NCIC information from three other officers and used it to track down and murder his girlfriend.