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.
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?
- If you are under arrest and you are taken to a police station, the police have the power to take your fingerprints (by force if necessary).
- The police can take fingerprints away from a police station ONLY if they have reason to suspect you have committed an offence AND they have reason to doubt that you have provided your real name and address.
- If the police have grounds to take fingerprints, they must first give you an opportunity to give your details. They can fingerprint you only if there are ‘reasonable grounds’ to doubt you have given your real name and address.
- If you have provided a document showing your name and address, they must tell you why this is not sufficient on its own to prove your identity.
- If you refuse to give your fingerprints (and the police have ‘reasonable suspicion’), they have the power to take fingerprints without consent, or to arrest you for the offence you are suspected of, and take you to the police station.
What if I haven’t committed an offence?
- To lawfully take your fingerprints the police must suspect that you have committed an offence. They MUST tell you what offence you are reasonably suspected of having committed and why you are reasonably suspected of committing it. If the police will not or cannot do this, you SHOULD NOT provide your fingerprints (or your name and address).
- If the police allege that you have committed an offence, MAKE SURE they explain what offence it is that has been committed, and what reason they have for suspecting you.
- Being stopped and searched, DOES NOT by itself give the police powers to take your fingerprints OR your name and address.
- Being detained to prevent a breach of the peace, or held in a protest kettle, DOES NOT by itself give the police powers to take your fingerprints OR your name and address.
- If the police have suspicion that you are breaching bail conditions, they have the power to arrest you. A suspicion that you are breaching bail conditions DOES NOT give them the power to take your fingerprints on a mobile scanner, as this is NOT an offence.
What if I am suspected of Anti-social behaviour?
- If the police allege that you have engaged in anti-social behaviour*,INSIST they tell you what they ‘reasonably believe’ you have done that was likely to caused harassment, alarm and distress.**
- If the police cannot or will not tell you why they believe you were likely to cause harassment alarm or distress, , the police do NOT have powers to take your fingerprints, and you SHOULD NOT give a name and address.
- If the police DO you have reason to believe you have engaged in anti-social behaviour, they DO have the power to demand your name and address. The police WILL then have the power take your fingerprints IF you refuse to provide your name and address, OR they suspect you of providing a false name and address***.
* 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?
- The device will scan your fingerprints and check them against the police database. They should return a result within two minutes. The scan taken by the mobile fingerprint device is NOT kept, and DOES NOT stay on the system.
- If your prints are already on record, the police will be able to see your details. These will include your name, last known address, warning markers and whether or not you are wanted for any outstanding offences.
- If the offence you are suspected of committing is a minor one, and you have given your prints, the police SHOULD consider alternatives to arrest eg summons, fixed penalty notice or words of advice.
- If your prints are not already on the database, this will mean that the police cannot verify your details. What the police do then is up to them – depending on the situation they may accept the details you have given as true, or they may arrest you for the offence you are suspected of committing. If you are arrested your prints will be taken in the police station, and these will be retained on the system.