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Police to trial mobile fingerprinting on the street in initiative slammed by Liberty

Frontline police officers are trialling new mobile fingerprinting technology that will enable them to identify suspects within minutes as part of plans to save police time and slash costs – but the plans publicised over the weekend have been blasted by civil liberties group Liberty.

Police across the country will be given access to a smartphone app and handheld scanner to compare the fingerprints of people they apprehend with criminal and immigration records.

The system connects to two live databases through the new Biometric Services Gateway. West Yorkshire Police teamed with the Home Office to implement the system.

It means we can submit fingerprints of suspects from the street to a live time national database and receive results in less than a minute

Last week, the police force revealed that it would roll out 250 biometric scanners to its officers over the coming weeks in a trial of the system. Around 5,500 police officers are already using the smartphone app.

According to the Home Office, another 20 police forces will get access to the system by the end of the year, although it hasn’t revealed which forces will be taking part in the expanded trial.

Nick Hurd, the minister for policing and fire service, said that the technology is intended to provide more capabilities to the country’s frontline police officers.

“The Biometric Services Gateway is just one of a series of national systems the Home Office is designing with policing to give officers information at their fingertips faster than ever before,” he said.

He continued: “By cutting out unnecessary trips to and from the police station, mobile technology is really helping to save valuable time and allowing officers to do what they do best – cutting crime and keeping us safe.

“It’s clear that by embracing technology the police can improve efficiency and, if all forces delivered the level of productivity from mobile working as the leading forces, the average officer could spend an hour a day extra on the frontline.”

There’s no recognition of how breathtakingly invasive this proposal is. There is no discussion of consent

As well as increasing police officers’ capabilities, the system will also help cut costs. The Home Office said the scanners costs less than £300 per unit, which it claims is 90 per cent cheaper than current mobile fingerprinting systems.

For security reasons, the fingerprints taken are not stored on a database and are deleted once they have been cross-referenced with existing records.

Andy Battle, assistant chief constable at West Yorkshire Police, said: “The introduction of these fingerprint devices is a significant step forward for West Yorkshire Police and marks another milestone in our technological ambitions.

“As we have already experienced in the trial, the combination of these digital solutions bring tangible benefits to policing our communities.

“It means we can submit fingerprints of suspects from the street to a live time national database and receive results in less than a minute.”

However, pressure group Liberty slammed the plans, saying that the roll out of the technology puts the public’s privacy rights at risk. It said the plans should have been included in a public or parliamentary debate first, before it was even implemented, let alone trialled.

Emma Norton, head of legal casework at the organisation, said: “The police have a very difficult job. Protecting the public, fighting crime. It’s a job that hasn’t got any easier in recent years… 

“But very bad things can happen when the police get it wrong – which is why vital rights have been enshrined in law to ensure a certain minimum level of protection for suspects,” she said. 

She added: “There’s no recognition of how breathtakingly invasive this proposal is. 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.”

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