Mobile fingerprint harvesting gets cold shoulder from cops


The Police Association of South Australia (PASA) has moved to distance itself from an escalating dispute between the state’s government and the influential Australian Privacy Foundation (APF) over the introduction of controversial new mobile fingerprinting technology.

As legal debate intensifies over the degree to which law enforcement agencies can legitimately use biometric checks on the public in the field, the equivalent of the police union has effectively sidelined any idea of retaining digital fingerprint scans collected from people who subsequently draw a blank against the CrimTrac national register.

The entry of the PASA into the debate is significant because it reflects the independent views of police separate and distinct to those of the government which makes laws that serving officers are required to uphold.

The Australian Privacy Foundation has taken strong issue with the South Australian Government’s implementation of the mobile fingerprinting technology, writing to both Premier Jay Weatherill and Opposition leader Steven Marshall over reports that around $3 million had been spent deploying mobile fingerprint scanners without legislation necessary to legally authorise their use.

A central element in the debate is under what circumstances police would be legally able to collect and retain fingerprints from people, including checks performed to see whether there were outstanding warrants.

Police in most states now routinely run warrant and related criminal database checks on people pulled-up for non-criminal driving offences.

But it is understood the idea of harvesting fingerprints from the non-criminal public to keep on file is privately viewed as an unacceptable option by many police who fear such a move could make their already difficult job harder.

Many jurisdictions outside Australia routinely compel citizens and residents to provide their fingerprints for identification purposes.

The use of mobile fingerprint scanners has been heavily pushed by the biometrics industry as a means to both more accurately identify potential offenders as well as a big operational efficiency gain as people could be cleared on the spot without needing to be taken to a police station.

However the Privacy Foundation clearly has strong reservations over the need for scanning and what then happens to scanned prints from cleared people.

“Any proposal to invade privacy of the physical person is extreme, and requires extreme justification,” APF chair Roger Clarke said in his letter to the South Australian Premier.

The APF also wants confirmation that the South Australian government will withdraw any decision it may have made on fingerprinting without first conducting “a sufficiently public process” consistent with principles for privacy protection.

The APF’s prospects of success on that front appear about as good as the Weatherill government’s prospects of victory at the looming state poll.

The PASA is keeping a conspicuously level head on the issue, despite the absence of legislation, and steered well away of any talk of retention of non-matched prints.

“The Police Association understands and appreciates the role of the Australian Privacy Foundation in protecting the privacy rights of Australians,” South Australia Police Association president Mark Carroll told Government News.

Mr Carroll said that the PASA understanding of the [SA] government’s proposed fingerprint-scan legislation “would only allow police to scan individuals reasonably suspected of having committed an offence” and “only allow police to check individuals’ fingerprints against the existing national database.”

“The association looks forward to more debate and clarity when the legislation enters Parliament,” Mr Carroll said.

Just what form that legislation will take and how far it will go still has a way to run given that is no way the present Weatherill government can get laws through the Parliament before the state poll that will be held on 15th March.

The gap means that both privacy advocates and law enforcement stakeholders will have time to attempt to exert a degree of influence over the shape of laws, or even whether they come to pass or not.

Police unions across Australia have become visibly more active on the public policy front over the last few years.

The NSW Police Association – in conjunction with doctors, nurses, paramedics and ambulance officers – successfully agitated for curbs and licensing restrictions to be introduced for all night beer barns in Sydney’s CBD and the red light district of Kings Cross.

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