It's billed by the FBI as "the lifeline of law enforcement" - a federal database used to catch criminals, recover stolen property and even identify terrorism suspects.
But authorities say Edwin Vargas logged onto the restricted system and ran names for reasons that had nothing to do with his duties as a New York Police Department detective. Instead, he was accused in May of looking up personal information on two fellow officers without their knowledge.
The allegation against Vargas is one of a batch of corruption cases in recent years against NYPD officers accused of abusing the FBI-operated National Crime Information Center database to cyber snoop on co-workers, tip off drug dealers, stage robberies and - most notoriously - scheme to abduct and eat women.
The NCIC database serves 90,000 agencies and gets 9 million entries a day by users seeking information on stolen guns and cars, fugitives, sex offenders, orders of protection and other subjects, according to an FBI website. The NYPD system - called the "Finest," as in "New York's Finest" - also allows access to state criminal and Department of Motor Vehicles records.
How often the database is used for unauthorized purposes is unclear. The NYPD insists that officers are under strict orders to use it only during car stops, ongoing investigations or other police work. The department assigns them login names and passwords that allow supervisors to track their usage on desktop computers in station houses or on laptops in patrol cars.
NYPD recruits are warned that "if you misuse or you access information in an inappropriate manner ... you are in serious trouble - such as being prosecuted, being fired and also big fines," a police academy instructor testified at the trial of Gilbert Valle, who was convicted in March in a bizarre plot to kidnap, cook and cannibalize women.
In addition, an FBI compliance unit conducts spot audits to examine users' "policies, procedures, and security requirements," the FBI said in a statement. The FBI also requires each state to have its own audit programs and claims that "malicious misuse is not commonly discovered."
But both the instructor testifying at the Valle trial and an Internal Affairs Bureau investigator who took the witness stand in an earlier case have conceded that officers can easily circumvent safeguards.
The investigator testified as a government witness at the 2010 trial of an NYPD officer accused of using the database to conduct surveillance of a perfume warehouse in New Jersey before an armed robbery there. He told jurors that officers often do searches while logged in under another officer's name - either out of neglect or, in this case, intent.
"Unfortunately ... it's not unusual that it happens," the investigator said.
The instructor, when asked about an officer's ability to effectively log in anonymously, responded, "I know it occurs. I wouldn't say it's common, but I know it does occur."
At a trial where Valle was convicted in March, prosecutors alleged that the officer used the database - sometimes accessing it while riding in a patrol car with his supervising sergeant - to help compile dossiers on women that listed their birthdates, addresses, heights and weights. None of the women were harmed, but prosecutors alleged he went as far as to show up on one woman's block after striking an agreement to kidnap her for US$5000 for a New Jersey man who wanted to rape and kill her.
In another database abuse case last year, federal authorities charged NYPD patrolman Jose Tejada with being a member of a crew that posed as police officers while staging more than 100 robberies of drug traffickers that netted more than 250 kilograms of cocaine and US$1 million in cash.
Tejada "ran the names of co-conspirators through law enforcement databases to determine whether there were active warrants in the names of the co conspirators," prosecutors said in court papers. "In connection with these searches, Tejada advised co conspirators whether they could re-enter the United States without being arrested by law enforcement authorities."
The cases aren't confined to New York. In the last six years, authorities have accused a Memphis police officer of using the NCIC database to leak information to a confidential informant about a watch dealer who the informant believed had stolen a Rolex; a reserve patrolman in Clarkston, Georgia, of running names and license plates for marijuana dealers; a Montgomery County, Md., officer of running checks on cars belonging to a woman who later reported that the vehicles had been vandalized; and a Hartford, Connecticut, police sergeant of supplying database records to a woman who used them to harass her ex-boyfriend's new girlfriend.
In the case of Vargas, the NYPD detective, prosecutors allege he hacked into the email accounts and passwords of 21 fellow officers and nine others. At least two times, he used the NIRC database without authorization to look up information on two officers whose private email accounts he'd secretly obtained, authorities said.
Prosecutors didn't give a motive, but police officials suggested he was looking to see who his ex-girlfriend, also a police officer, was chatting with. His lawyer said he was "shocked" by the allegations.
If convicted, Vargas would be fired from the force and face a year behind bars.