Report on the public perception of police fingerprint scanning

A graphic of people from different races looking at the viewer wearing face masks. Blue text above their heads on a beige background reads: '"For years I have been fearful of accessing public services, including the NHS or the police, because of their association with the Hostile Environment. This would merely add to that." - WALES NON-EU MIGRANT PARTICIPATION.'

The Racial Justice Network and Yorkshire Resists have written a new report to draw attention to the impact of the Biometric Services Gateway (mobile fingerprinting) on both the communities targeted by police and the wider public. The report discusses issues that arose from an online survey (115 participants) conducted on the public’s perception of the mobile fingerprinting app, as well as new data obtained through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request.

Mobile biometric devices are handheld fingerprint scanners that police officers can use to check, on the spot, a person’s identity by matching the image of the fingerprint taken against the IDENT1 criminal record database and the Home Office IABS database without taking the individual into custody. The scanners can be connected to any mobile phone or tablet that also runs the corresponding app which allows the biometric databases to be searched.

After listening to concerns coming from the communities we work with, the Racial Justice Network felt a report was needed to draw further attention to the mobile fingerprint scanners. Among the most pressing concerns was the damage to relations between racially minoritised communities and police who were seen as carrying out Immigration Enforcement checks, as well as the dissuasion of reporting crimes by those with precarious immigration status, seeking asylum and visa holders. We were also motivated by the general lack of awareness and meaningful public consultation on the new measures. As highlighted in this report, due diligence, ethical procedures and impact assessment were not adequately conducted by the police. It is worrying then that no consultation with communities was carried out before equipping thousands of officers who are insufficiently trained to properly handle immigration matters with the ability to run on-the-spot immigration checks.

Our analysis of data obtained via FOI on the use of mobile biometrics in West Yorkshire during the latter phase of the pilot from October 2018 and March 2019 revealed that:

  • “BAME” (term used in official information) people were more than 3 times more likely to be stopped and have their fingerprints scanned than white British and Irish people. 
  • Black people were stopped and scanned at a rate of 7 per 10,000 people in comparison to 2 uses of the scanners per 10,000 for white British and Irish people. 
  • Asian Pakistani, which are the biggest non-white ethnic group in West Yorkshire (8.5% of the population), accounted for 21% of uses of the mobile fingerprint scanners. 
  • The largest non-British white communities in West Yorkshire are Polish, Romanian and Slovakian, which include a sizable Roma population. This group had one of the highest rates of use of mobile fingerprint scanners, 15.3 per 10,000 people.

Key findings from our report include, but are not limited to:

  • 93% did not support the introduction of the Biometric Services Gateway to UK police forces. 
  •  96% believe the Biometric Services Gateway embeds racial profiling. 
  •  89%  felt police should not have access to immigration data. 
  • 88% of migrant respondents said they would not feel safe to go to the police for help or to report a crime. This fear did not only pertain to migrant communities, but also to those who felt they could be differentially treated on the basis of their race or ethnicity.

Key themes identified in our report relating to the Biometric Services Gateway and mobile fingerprint scanners were:

  • They were seen as an extension of racist Stop and Search practices.
  • They were seen as an infringement of privacy, civil liberties and legal safeguards.
  • Major concerns over how this technology affected the scope of police powers and fear of reporting to police.
  • Worry over how the biometric devices led to further criminalisation of migrants.

There have been numerous reports over the past decades that have highlighted the institutional racism and racialism that exists within the police force and the Home Office such as the Macpherson Report and the Williams Review. To hand over even more powers to a force whilst the dust has not settled on the current claims and calls for accountability is reckless and also an insult to the general public. An unchecked police force on matters of classism, racism and xenophobia should not be judge, jury and executioners of the same communities. 

We are not only asking for proper ethical duty and processes to be undertaken, we are asking the police force to listen to these concerns. Our survey ultimately demonstrates the introduction of the Biometric Services Gateway runs fundamentally against public interest and that police becoming a border force means inflicting further harm on racially minoritised who they are required to protect under the Equality Act.

Questions of where public resources are best directed remain a pertinent issue and, in the ‘Recommendations’ section, our report points towards the importance of investing in community advocates, organisations and charities who continuously support individuals experiencing police discrimination or who are victims of hate crimes.

If you have any feedback please email via stopthescan@racialjusticenetwork.co.uk.

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