news The Australian Privacy Foundation has written to the South Australian Premier and Leader of the Opposition expressing strong concern about what it said was the “extreme” project currently being pursued by the South Australian police force to deploy fingerprint scanners to front-line police officers.
Last week, the South Australian State Government issued a media release noting that it had committed to deploying a fleet of fingerprint scanners coupled with Android-based smartphones that would allow officers in the field to conduct identity checks in the field instead of taking suspects back to police stations.
The technology is billed as being able to reduce police officers’ vulnerability to inaccurate identity claims and is being deployed with the assistance of Japanese technology giant NEC.
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.
However, the APF, which is the primary national association dedicated to protecting the privacy rights of Australians, has written to SA Premier Jay Weatherill and his Opposition counterpart (see the letter to Weatherill here in PDF format) expressing its concern over the project.
“… the APF expresses the most serious concern about the proposal, and the manner in which it is being developed,” wrote APF chair Roger Clarke in the letter. “Any proposal to invade privacy of the physical person is extreme, and requires extreme justification. The necessary approach to such proposals in a democracy is for an evaluation to be performed.”
Clarke attached several documents which describe how organisations can protect privacy and carry our privacy impact assessments. “Would you please confirm that your Government will: withdraw any decision that may have been made in relation to fingerprint collection; and conduct a sufficiently public process, consistent with the above guidance,” he added.
Both NEC and the SA State Government have branded early trials of the project as a success.
“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, in a separate statement last week. 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.”
At this stage, Delimiter believes that fingerprints collected by the SA Police will not be permanently stored either on the devices used or on fingerprint databases — that the service will only be used for identity matching processes.
The APF is right — there are clear privacy issues here. No police force should have the right to interfere with someone physically unless there is a very strong justification. As I wrote last week:
“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