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stop and search
Credit: Petras Gagilas/Flickr

The government chose a quiet Saturday morning in February to sneak out a new police power which has the potential to cause a devastating impact on civil liberties, and is open to serious abuse. With no reference to Parliament, the Home Office announced that West Yorkshire police will be trialling a scheme allowing officers to check people’s fingerprints in the street against both criminal and immigration databases.

In its press release, the Home Office announced that with the tiny scanners – costing less than £300 each –

We can submit fingerprints of suspects from the street to a live time national database and receive results in less than a minute.

And there’s a particularly worrying line in the press release:

As well as identifying a person of interest who may be withholding their name the technology enables officers to rapidly identify someone experiencing a medical emergency and make contact with their next of kin.

As well as identifying a person of interest who may be withholding their name. In fact, withholding your name is in most cases your right. Contrary to what the police might tell you, they have no power to demand that you give your name if they stop and search you – that is to say, they’re quite entitled to ask, and you’re quite entitled to refuse. However, if the police suddenly have the power to identify people using their fingerprints, they may want to use that power when people are asserting their right not to identify themselves.

A further worry is that the word ‘suspects’ is not defined in the press release. And this leaves open the suggestion that the police could be going around asking people for their fingerprints without any genuine suspicion that they’ve committed any offence. It raises the spectre of the ‘sus’ laws, stop and search powers used in the 70s which had to be repealed after it was shown that they were being used by the police to target racial minorities. Already, a black person is six times more likely to be stopped by the police than a white person. Giving the police more powers, this time to demand fingerprints, is likely to lead to more racial profiling and more innocent people being swept up in the criminal ‘justice’ system.

Human rights group Liberty has pointed out that in the press release:

There’s no mention of what power this will be conducted under. Or whether police will require a person’s consent. Or what may happen if someone declines a request. 

Liberty also notes that the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) of 1984 was brought in to protect suspects’ rights, and sets out what the police can and can’t do when investigating crime. Liberty says that:

PACE requires police to have reasonable grounds to suspect someone of an offence before subjecting them to these kinds of intrusive measures.

This new power, however, has had no Parliamentary scrutiny, and will not be part of PACE, leading to the fear that it could be used to target anyone the police don’t like the look of, even if they are not doing anything criminal. It has the potential to be used disproportionately against black people, as well as being used to harass protesters and immigrants.

The Home Office says that fingerprints, once checked, will automatically be deleted. But given how reluctant the police have been to delete information on their databases about entirely innocent people, it’s not much of a stretch to think that they might see this as an opportunity to gather even more data about people who have not been accused of any offence.

The Home Office says that the scanners will be rolled out to another 20 forces across the country by the end of the year. It’s a worrying development but one which the police could come unstuck on: without a legal leg to stand on, if a few people refuse to co-operate with this latest data gathering exercise, it could end up going the same way as the sus laws.

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