Mobile fingerprint readers put into police hands

The police improvement agency is pushing out MobileID handheld devices to forces around the UK, to let officers on the beat check fingerprints and identities on the spot

The National Police Improvement Agency has kicked off a national rollout of mobile devices that let officers check people's fingerprints in the street.

The organisation, which will be wound down next year, said on Tuesday that 25 police forces in the UK, including the Serious Organised Crime Agency, are being issued with MobileID handsets. The fingerprint-checking devices speed up the process of identifying people, it said.

"Identification is crucial to police investigations, and giving officers the ability to do this on the spot within minutes is giving them more time to spend working in their communities, helping to fight crime, bringing more offenders to justice and better protecting the public," said Tom McArthur, NPIA's director of operations, in a statement.

The system works by capturing a fingerprint on a handheld device, which sends the biometric data via Bluetooth to the police officer's BlackBerry handset. This then transmits the data, via police backend systems, for checking against the National Fingerprint Database, Ident1. The biometric data is then discarded, according to the NPIA.

The rollout follows a trial of mobile fingerprint technology called Lantern in 28 forces around the country. Tests of Lantern began in 2007, but the technology did not always work, according to an NPIA spokesman.

"We'd find that scans sometimes were not going through," the spokesman told ZDNet UK.

The NPIA is charged with improving the capability of UK police forces by a variety of means, including the use of technology. At the moment, it is responsible for a range of projects, including Mobile ID, Ident1 and the Police National Database. It contracts out its technology needs to suppliers: for example, Cogent Systems supplies the MobileID handsets via a £5.7m contract, while Ident1 is run by US military contractor Northrop Grumman.

The centralised Ident1 system was set up in 2008 and holds biometric data on every person arrested in England, Wales and Scotland. It currently holds 18.6 million sets of fingerprints and 8.8 million palm prints, according to the NPIA. This information is synchronised with arrest records held by the police. In Scotland, people acquitted of an offence have their data removed from Ident1, but in England and Wales, it is only removed in special circumstances.

The Home Office has not yet decided who will take over the NPIA's responsibilities when it is wound down, said the organisation's spokesman. "We don't know what's going to happen with all the functions the NPIA runs," said the spokesman. "The Home Office is deciding what's going to happen."

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