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Last week, the Metropolitan police confirmed that its officers have started to use mobile fingerprint scanners, the 25th UK police force to do so. Initially the Met have 350 of these devices, linked to police Blackberry phones, which they claim can provide, in under two minutes, confirmation of personal details, warning markers and whether a person is wanted for a crime.

The police can use these devices to take a person’s fingerprints, with or without consent, if they ‘reasonably suspect’ they have committed a criminal offence.  The individual concerned does not need to be under arrest , nor does the offence they are suspected of need to be a serious offence.  Once fingerprints have been used to establish ID, the police may decide to arrest, summons, give a fixed penalty notice, give ‘words of advice’, or take no further action.

 

This article was originally published on the website of the Network for Police Monitoring.

 

The police PR spin suggests that this measure is all about saving police time, providing a more cost-effective alternative to making arrests.  But, given the history of ‘function creep’ in police powers, the use of portable biometrics testing could pose a serious threat to civil rights.

While there is a theoretical protection in that these measures can be used only when a person is suspected of a criminal offence, in practice this is not so reassuring.   Offences such as obstruction and ‘anti-social behaviour’ are so broadly and vaguely defined they can be used to describe almost any set of circumstances, not just those that are actually criminal.  Existing police powers to carry out stop and searches are already frequently abused to obtain an individual’s name and address.  Mobile fingerprinting used alongside existing stop and search practices could provide a de facto power to carry out biometric identification of people without any need for ‘reasonable suspicion’.

The following comments posted on a police discussion forum may be illustrative:

I use such devices on a daily basis. I don’t order people to give their prints, I tend to ask if they are happy to give a print to confirm their identity and avoid having to go to the station to confirm who they are. I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s refused. Keep it simple :)

Obvious examples include if an offence is committed, obviously there’s the necessity to arrest if an officer needs to confirm the name or address of an individual. And of course good old S.50 of the police reform act, the power to require the name and address of an individual that an officer has reason to believe is or has been acting in an anti social manner.

If the extended use of mobile fingerprinting becomes ‘normalised’ the police will have, in effect, the means to demand the biometric identification of any person they choose.  The extent to which this practice will be used disproportionately against certain groups in society – young people, protesters, migrant, BME or white working class communities – is yet to be seen, but the civil rights implications are potentially extremely serious. The fact that the fingerprints taken on mobile devices cannot (yet) be retained on police databases only partially mitigates the harm that can be done.

Netpol believes that it is important for civil rights abuses to be resisted and opposed.  For that reason we would urge people who are not ‘reasonable suspected’ of a criminal offence to refuse to comply with mobile fingerprinting, unless there is a very good reason to do otherwise.  We would be keen to hear about any experiences with mobile fingerprint devices readers of this blog may have.

Netpol have also today published a guide to rights and mobile fingerprinting, which is reproduced below.

Your rights and mobile fingerprinting

When can police take fingerprints with a mobile device?

What if I haven’t committed an offence?

What if I am suspected of Anti-social behaviour?

* Anti-social behaviour is any behaviour likely to cause harassment alarm or distress to a member of the public. If what you did was not likely to do that, it was not anti-social behaviour. Non-violent protest is NOT anti-social behaviour, even if it is unlawful.

** Swearing in front of a police officer probably ISNT anti-social behaviour as the law says that police officers are unlikely to be caused ‘harassment alarm or distress’ by bad language.  (This may not be the case if other people could hear.)

***Under s50 Police Reform Act, you commit an offence if you do not provide your name and address when a police officer reasonably believes you have engaged in anti-social behaviour.

What happens if I give my fingerprints?

Check out the website of the Network for Police Monitoring, Netpol, to find out more about police powers.