Papers please: how biometric ID checks put our rights at risk

Posted by Hannah Couchman on 19 October 2018

On-the-spot biometric ID checks are an intrusive and unnecessary addition to the ever-expanding network of police surveillance technologies.

Mobile fingerprinting isn’t new, but two months ago the Met police announced that it will be rolling out 600 new mobile fingerprint scanners to the officers who police London’s streets.

These new Identity Not Known or “INK” biometric devices, created by the Met, use data accessed via the Home Office’s Biometric Services Gateway – including information from the Criminal Records Office and immigration records. Officers can scan people’s fingerprints and confirm their identity on the streets if their data is on record – and they can also check if they are wanted for any outstanding offences.

Many people won’t know their rights when asked by police to identify themselves in the street and are likely to comply without question.

There are less invasive methods for the police to identify someone when they need to while ensuring their rights are respected. Where there is genuine reason to believe that someone has committed an offence and has misled the police as to their identity, they should be taken to a police station and given access to legal advice and an appropriate adult where necessary.

This rollout follows hot on the heels of the announcement in February this year of the Home Office’s announcement of a trial of similar devices by West Yorkshire Police.

When Liberty asked West Yorkshire Police for more details, we were told that it wasn’t a trial but “a live replacement of the system which has been in existence for ten years”, and there was “no data retained” for evaluation – which is no surprise, given that there wasn’t a trial.

Twenty-one forces are expected to be using new mobile fingerprinting devices by the end of 2018.

New on-the-spot immigration checks

The prospect of on-the-spot biometric immigration checks is deeply worrying, especially given that black and minority ethnic communities are most likely to be profiled on grounds of suspected immigration status.

Home Office data shows that nearly one in five people caught up in immigration checks over a five year period were actually British citizens. While the Home Office does not monitor ethnicity data in relation to those checks, lawyers who analysed that data stated that “the obvious inference is that those who look like immigrants are targeted.”

BAME communities are already over-policed. Research published this week by StopWatch and Release found that black people are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs than white people but less likely to have drugs found on them. Facial recognition technology was deployed at Notting Hill Carnival for two years running as part of the Met’s trial – which will only have ten deployments in total.

The retention of innocent people’s DNA by the police has a disproportionate impact on people from black and minority ethnic communities. It has been projected that as many as 77 per cent of young black men are included on the DNA database[1] – a direct result of the disproportionately high number of arrests of black people, which is not reflected in a correspondingly higher number of convictions.

On-the-spot biometric checks will add to this toxic mix and are likely to further undermine police-community relations.

Mission creep

The Home Office suggested that the new fingerprinting devices could be used to scan and identify people in urgent medical situations[2]  demonstrating little regard for the fact that the databases the fingerprint-scanning devices use are compiled for policing, crime and immigration purposes – not medical ones.

In the immediate term, fingerprinting in cases of medical emergency could deter undocumented migrants from seeking help. But this innocuous-sounding intervention also speaks to a disquieting longer-term trend, whereby Government uses data collected for one purpose in another context entirely, without a person’s knowledge or consent.

And Liberty is concerned about how this technology will evolve. These devices could be used to retain people’s fingerprints, ultimately adding to the ever-increasing stockpile of sensitive personal data that the police are amassing. While these devices don’t presently retain the biometric data of everyone who is scanned, the routine use of these devices conditions each of us to accept that eventuality.

Big data and the web of police surveillance tech

Use of big data and new technologies is often viewed as a panacea for the challenges that modern-day law enforcement faces. Technologies such as mobile fingerprint scanners, facial recognition and mobile phone data extraction, used in conjunction with one another and police super-databases, risk changing the relationship between the individual and the state, creating a society in which anonymity is the exception, and pervasive surveillance is the norm.

In that kind of environment it isn’t just our privacy rights that suffer – personal autonomy, free speech and assembly are threatened too, and the impacts are often most keenly felt by groups that are already marginalised.

We should continue to put the question to the state and society: do we need these technologies on our streets at all? In the case of mobile fingerprinting, the answer is no.


[1] See, for example: Home Affairs Committee, Young Black People and the Criminal Justice System, 13 March 2007, HC 181-II 154 2005-2006, page 118, question 653 and 654. Accessed at: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200607/cmselect/cmhaff/181/181ii.pdf

Hannah Couchman Liberty

Hannah Couchman

Liberty
Advocacy and Policy Officer