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Sooraj Shah

Contributing Editor

Sooraj Shah is Contributing Editor of New Statesman Tech with a focus on C-level IT leader interviews. He is also a freelance technology journalist.

We’re not putting citizen privacy or rights at risk, insists West Yorkshire Police digital chief

The chief inspector of digital policing at West Yorkshire Police, Ian Williams, has insisted that the new biometric technology that will help police officers to scan citizens’ fingerprints will not put people’s privacy at risk, nor will it breach their human rights.

Earlier this month, the police force announced that it would go live with technology from Motorola Solutions to 250 frontline officers, in a project jointly developed with the Home Office. The tech runs on Pronto, a mobile information e-notebook that is used by many police forces across the UK. The technology allows officers to check fingerprints against national fingerprint database records via handheld scanners that attach to an officer’s phone.

In an interview with NS Tech, Williams responded to claims from human rights group Liberty, that the use of fingerprint scanning without any public or parliamentary debate could potentially affect human rights.

Emma Norton, head of legal casework at Liberty wrote in a blog post that the technology was “breathtakingly invasive” and that there had been no discussion of consent or of the importance of legal advice before people should be asked to hand over this kind of information about themselves. She argued that people needed to know what would happen if someone declines a request.

But Williams responded by stating that the claims from Liberty were based on “misinformation”.

“This is new technology that is delivering what is already enabled within the legislation. The law was changed 10 to 12 years ago (the law was actually changed in 1984 under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act) to enable us to take prints from people who we suspected of offences and whose identity we doubted – we’re not just going out there and fingerprinting people on the street,” he said, emphasising that the force would not be implementing the technology in a “stop and search” style manner that had been suggested by various media outlets.

Williams gave an example of the police force recently stopping a vehicle for an offence, and then being given false information about their identity.

“Ordinarily we would have arrested him because we couldn’t ascertain who he was, but using this device and this technology we were able to identify if he was a disqualified driver and he was subsequently summoned to court and his vehicle was seized. This meant officers could go back out on the road rather than having to arrest him and spend two hours in custody – it’s saved a lot of time,” he stated.

Williams claimed that the technology is enabling the force to therefore arrest fewer, rather than more, people.

“Once we identify who they are we can give them a caution or a community order or a ticket or a summons to court  – we don’t have to bring them into custody,” he said.

In response to Norton’s suggestion that there should have been parliamentary scrutiny about the technology, Williams said that this had already taken place when the Police and Criminal Evidence Act was introduced. He said that police forces were able to use this kind of technology, but it had taken West Yorkshire Police up until now to actually be able to implement it.

Williams said that the police force would scan a fingerprint on the device for the sole purpose of searching a database that already exists. As soon as the police force has completed that search and collated it, the fingerprint is deleted from the device.

“We’re not adding to the database, we’re not collecting from the database and we’re not saving anyone’s impressions; we’re simply scanning them for identification and then we’re discarding them – we’re not keeping any data,” he states.

Other use cases

One of Liberty’s key concerns was that the police would use the new technology to target immigrants – but Williams said that this would not be the case.

“We are not using the immigration database as a means to target immigrants – illegal or otherwise. It is just another database that we can utilise to confirm identity when dealing with offences. If by doing so, we establish that a person is known to immigration, we will simply take their lead on what action they want us to take – whether that is to establish the address, make an arrest or do nothing,” he said.

“A positive hit on this database will simply confirm they are known to immigration. We will simply contact them for direction as we do now when we know they are known to them. Target is not a word that comes into this process at all because we are identifying suspects for offences,” he added.

The fingerprint scanning technology can also be used if a police officer comes across someone seriously injured or unconscious. The force can pass on the details to the medical practitioner so that the patient can get the right medical attention according to their records – meaning that the doctor would be aware of any allergies that could be a danger to their lives. In addition, the police could identify the person’s next of kin and contact them to ensure they can get to the hospital as well.

“The Mental Capacity Act allows us to use the fingerprints in this situation – when someone doesn’t have the capacity to protect themselves,” Williams explained.

He suggested that the Department of Health should create a voluntary database for people suffering from certain ailments, so that they can volunteer their fingerprints. These could then be used by ambulances to know if the person is suffering from an allergy and could die as a result of treatment.