The Police are Testing New 'Stop and Scan' Powers That Let Them Check Fingerprints

By Tom Pritchard on at

Police here in the UK are set to get some new powers when it comes to stopping random people in the street. A new trial will let officers scan fingerprints of people unable to identify themselves, cross checking it with criminal and immigration databases to see if you're actually allowed to be out in the streets.

If officers suspect someone of an offence, and they don't have any sort of ID on their person, they'll be able to use a mobile device to scan their fingerprints and find out who they are. Inside each device are the 12 million fingerprints stored in the IDENT1 and IABS databases, which respectively hold the data for people taken into custody and foreign citizens who visit the UK.

According to the Home Office, the new 'stop and scan' powers are designed to speed up police checks that would normally have to take place down the station, which could theoretically could save police time and resources. That said, the general lack of oversight has stirred up some complaints from privacy advocates who say it could lead to more abuses of power. More specifically Martha Spurrier, director of UK advocacy group Liberty, says that the new technology could increase tensions already associated with search powers - particularly since evidence has shown they're used to disproportionately target minority groups. Telling the Verge:

“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.”

Other worries include how that data may be shared, and whether or not it will be held indefinitely even if the initial reasons for the fingerprint scanning were unjust. There have already been numerous complaints that data collected by the government's mass surveillance is shared far too easily between government bodies, without needing clearance from the courts or a similar supervisory body. So it's hardly a surprise that there are similar concerns here.

As The Verge points out, the Home Office has been due to publish a comprehensive report on its biometric data policy, but this has been delayed since 2012. While that's bad enough, it's also repeatedly been criticised for not informing the public of their rights and holding onto that data for far longer than it should have.

Stop and Scan is currently being tested in West Yorkshire, with 250 mobile scanners out on the streets. If it proves to be a success it will then be rolled out to 20 other police forces across the UK by the end of the year. [Gov.uk via The Verge]


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