The West Yorkshire police are piloting a scheme that involves using a mobile fingerprinting system to check the identity of an unknown person in less than a minute. This “stop and scan” scheme raises fresh worries about invasive and discriminatory policing, and over the sharing of biometric data.
The system has been in development for the last twelve months, and was trialled by West Yorkshire Police for three weeks before being rolling out 250 scanners to its officers this weekend.
As Wired reports, officers will only resort to fingerprint scanning if they cannot identify an individual by other means. Clive Poulton, who helped manage the project at the Home Office, explains that the devices might be used in cases where someone has no identifying information on them, or appears to be giving police a fake name.
The fingerprints would then be matched with two databases. The first, called IDENT1, contains fingerprints gathered by the police when they take someone into custody. Anyone convicted of a serious crime may have their fingerprints stored on the database indefinitely. People who were not convicted but are arrested or charged in connection with a serious crime may also have their fingerprints stored on the database for up to five years, or indefinitely if they were convicted of another crime.
The other database, IABS, contains fingerprints collected from non-UK citizens when they enter the country. The Home Office had to build a new app that enables offers to easily search both of these databases simultaneously, but people fingerprinted using this system will have their details automatically deleted from the device as soon as the databases have been searched.
Human rights and racial justice advocates have raised alarm bells over the “stop and scan” scheme. Speaking to The Verge, Martha Spurrier, director of Liberty, said the technology could exacerbate problems associated with current stop and search powers, which are disproportionately used to target minorities and are often cited as a cause of tension between police and local communities:
“The problem with these mobile applications is that there’s nothing to stop an individual officer acting on their worst prejudices. With taking fingerprints or interviewing subjects, there’s a really good reason people have to take suspects to the station, because it [allows for oversight]. These are safeguards to make sure a police officer isn’t wandering around an estate, fingerprinting people at random.”
In another blog post, Liberty’s Head of Legal Casework calls the scheme “breathtakingly invasive.” She writes:
“There is no discussion of consent. Or of the importance of legal advice before people should be asked to hand over this kind of information about themselves. Or what may happen if someone declines a request. Or of what will be done with it – including the fact that it will be shared with the Home Office to target undocumented migrants.”
JUST Yorkshire, meanwhile, lamented the lack of public debate or scrutiny. Director Nadeem Murtuja is quoted as saying:
“I am deeply concerned that the Home Office has quietly chosen to roll out this portable, on the spot finger print scanning scheme in West Yorkshire, with little or no debate with the public, or in parliament. The people of West Yorkshire have every right to know from [West Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner] Mark Burns-Williamson why there has been little dialogue about this scheme with the people he serves. More fundamentally, he needs to ask the Home Office why West Yorkshire in particular, has been chosen for this pilot – is this racial profiling at a national scale?”