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, according to an FBI website.
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.
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.