Mobile fingerprinting is nothing new. But these are your rights.

Digital Fingerprint
Emily Apple

Mobile fingerprinting technology has been hitting the headlines. West Yorkshire Police is trialling a new system whereby fingerprints can be taken on a mobile device and checked against its database in seconds. Civil rights group Liberty has, somewhat belatedly, condemned its use.

There is something missing from the coverage, however. This is old news. The technology was first announced in 2008. The Metropolitan Police in London has been using the new scanners since 2013. The only difference seems to be that they are now slightly faster and cheaper.

But being old news doesn’t mean it’s not important. So here is a guide – with thanks to the Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) – on your rights and mobile fingerprinting.

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When can the police take your fingerprints?

If you’ve been arrested for a criminal offence, the police can take your fingerprints. And they can use [pdf, p2] “reasonable force” if you refuse. But if the police want to fingerprint you on the street with a mobile scanner, they must follow these steps:

  • Suspect that you’ve committed a criminal offence. If the police want to take your fingerprints with a mobile scanner, the first question you should ask is: “What offence do you believe I’ve committed?”
  • Ask you to provide your personal details first.
  • They can then only use the mobile scanner if they have “reasonable grounds” to believe that the name and address you’ve given are not genuine.
  • If you have provided a document with your name and address, the police must justify why they do not believe this is sufficient.
  • The police can only use force to take your fingerprint with a mobile scanner if they believe you have committed an offence.
  • Breach of the Peace is not a criminal offence. This means the police cannot take your fingerprints either with a mobile scanner or at the police station.

What happens after your fingerprints are taken?

  • The device scans your fingerprint to see whether there is a database match. On the old system, this took up to two minutes. The new system will return a result in less than a minute.
  • If you are suspected of committing a minor offence, and are on the database, the police should consider alternatives to arrest. These could include words of advice, a Fixed Penalty Notice [pdf], or a summons to attend court.
  • If the police are unable to verify your identity, they may arrest you. Your fingerprints will then be taken at the police station. And these will be kept on file.
  • Your fingerprints will not be kept on record after using the mobile scanner. The device automatically deletes the information after the scan.

Know your rights

As Netpol pointed out in 2013:

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.

Netpol also believes that it is important these civil liberties abuses are “resisted and opposed”. It states:

For that reason we would urge people who are not ‘reasonably suspected’ of a criminal offence to refuse to comply with mobile fingerprinting, unless there is a very good reason to do otherwise.

We should all be concerned about the way technology can be abused to erode our civil liberties. But a great way of countering it is to know and insist upon our rights. And we should all be grateful to groups like Netpol for providing us with the information that empowers us to do just that.

Get Involved!

– Support Netpol.

Featured image via Max Pixel

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