news South Australia’s police force has committed to deploying a fleet of fingerprint scanners coupled with Android-based smartphones that will allow officers in the field to conduct identity checks in the field instead of taking suspects back to police stations.
In a statement issued yesterday, the solution’s provider, NEC Australia, said it had developed and deployed a mobile fingerprint solution for SA Police that puts Australia’s criminal database at an officer’s fingertips anywhere there is access to a 3G/4G mobile data network.
According to NEC, this is the first time that any Australian police force has implemented an identity management technology used on smartphone mobile devices. Instead of verifying a person’s identity with fingerprint scanning technology at the station, SA Police officers equipped with NEC’s mobile solution can now independently do this when the person is present at the scene of a crime or during other questioning, such as missing persons investigations. The technology is billed as being able to reduce police officers’ vulnerability to inaccurate identity claims.
The solution consists of a small, lightweight fingerprint capture unit, which is connected via Bluetooth to an Android smartphone. The device is installed with a custom-built NEC app that officers use to cross-reference captured fingerprints against Australia’s Crimtrac National Police Reference database — specifically the National Automated Fingerprint Identification Services (NAFIS). If a match is found, results are displayed on the device as a “hit”, containing additional information about the person such as any bail conditions, outstanding warrants, current photo, address details and any behaviour characteristics such as “possibly violent tendencies.”
SAPOL and NEC ran a trial deployment of 20 biometric scanners and smartphone pairs beginning in late 2013. Having been deemed a success, the mobile identification technology will be deployed across 150 units.
“The rollout and operation at this point has been a complete success. It’s helped the South Australia Police force identify a number of suspects with outstanding warrants, bail conditions and aided investigations into missing persons,” said D’Wayne Mitchell, Director of Communications Solutions at NEC Australia. The NAFIS database currently contains 5.6 million sets of finger and palm records for 3.3 million people.
Data security was paramount to the deployment, according to NEC. The vendor supported this objective by developing a dedicated secure gateway, which supports auditing requirements and handles requests to NAFIS through CrimTrac’s National Portable Biometric Identification application interface. In compliance with SAPOL’s data security requirements, NEC’s solution ensures that no data is stored on the device.
Legislation will need to be passed before police can compel a person to provide their fingerprints.
Changes to the Summary Offences Act and the Criminal Law (Forensic Procedures) Act 2007 will be required and are being progressed.
In a separate statement, SA Police Minister John Rau praised the rollout. “These devices allow police to quickly access a person’s criminal history and see if there are any outstanding warrants,” Rau said. “During the recent trial, police officers have reported a number of examples where they were able to make arrests on the spot thanks to the mobile scanners. We are just the second state to take advantage of this technology – behind only New South Wales. We will be introducing laws to expand the powers for police to more effectively use these scanners to fight crime.”
To be honest, I’m in two minds about this kind of deployment.
On the one hand, I have to say that this precisely the kind of technology which we should expect Australian police officers to be deploying and using in 2014. Mobile fingerprint scanners have been around for years, and smartphones, with their mobile broadband connections and touchscreen interfaces make great interfaces to police databases of all kinds. This technology has the potential to make police forces much more efficient and productive, which is a great thing.
However, on the other hand, I have to say all this sounds a little Orwellian. Compelling people to hand over their fingerprints on the spot of a crime, without any due process? That sounds like a step too far; and almost goes into presumption of innocence. I think if a police officer asked me to hand over my fingerprints in the field for an ID check, I’d be asking to speak to my lawyer, pronto (well, in fact, as a journalist if a police officer asked me to do anything at any stage I would be asking to speak to my lawyer, but that’s by the by).
We need to balance out the potential usefulness of new policing technologies with the privacy implications of those new technologies. NEC and SA Police appear pretty gung ho about these new fingerprint scanners. But nowhere do I see an accompanying focus on maintaining the privacy of ordinary Australians. Being tough on crime is all well and good. But all too often, in today’s Australian society, that seems to mean also being tough on innocent people.
Image credit: NEC