15 May 2024

Police look for new tech to capture 600k crime scene fingerprints a year

7:42 am on 15 May 2024
Constable Richard Matthews dusts for fingerprints on a door where a suspected burglary took place.

File photo. Police expect to capture 600,000 images a year of prints left behind at crime scenes, and 50,000 at police stations from people they arrest. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Fresh from being forced to destroy thousands of fingerprint records, police are looking to boost their technology for scanning and storing scans of biometric identification data - unique features including fingerprints, scars, tattoos and faces.

This includes a plan for scores of 'biometric recording devices' to be put out into the field for the first time.

A tender that closed on Friday asked technology companies about capturing, transmitting and storing fingerprint scans from the field.

Police want to replace the existing 50 scanners at police stations to "increase this capability for biometric arrestee prints and provide a number of portable livescan devices for smaller stations/mobile workgroups/road policing," they said in a statement on Tuesday.

The tender shows they expect to capture 600,000 images a year of prints left behind at crime scenes, and 50,000 at police stations from people they arrest.

Some portable scanners in the United States let officers on patrol scan prints and identify a person within a minute.

A question in the tender asked: "600k per annum is extremely large (ie ~2000+ per day) Can you confirm this is correct?" Police responded that it was.

It was "not an extension of existing scope", they told RNZ.

Initially, police rejected RNZ's questions on the grounds that "this is a commercial process", and they took several days to clarify what they are looking at the better fingerprinting tech to do.

They are not at the stage of choosing to buy anything.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner (OPC) said it was not aware of the tender.

The police have also not consulted their external advisory panel on emerging technology. But the panel chair Professor Michael Macaulay said they did not consult about everything, and overall, "It's a very positive process, they have listened to our advice every time."

The OPC, after an inquiry, ordered police in late 2022 to destroy large numbers of fingerprints, mostly of Māori young people, but also of adults, unlawfully gathered for years and stored for far too long. They had also been storing thousands and thousands of unlawfully captured photos on their smartphones.

The law allows police to fingerprint a person detained in lawful custody for committing an offence. But with these youth, police up until 2022 would routinely fingerprint a person legally, and then do a second set.

"The second so-called voluntary set was unlawfully retained indefinitely," the inquiry said.

Police even had a special "consent" form for it, but the consent was not valid, the OPC said.

Police were forced by the OPC to scrap the practice in 2022, as well as the fingerprinting consent form.

But they had so many unlawful prints both on paper and digitally stored, that they failed to meet last December's deadline to delete them all.

On Monday, they told RNZ they had "identified and destroyed all Youth Voluntary Fingerprints".

The OPC gave directives to improve police's unclear policies and their lack of guidance around fingerprinting. Its latest update shows police were in March still working on those, and on a digital disposal standard.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner told RNZ that "just because an organisation is already using a technology or collecting information, it does not mean they have a continued right to use it without further checks".

It had told police to comply on fingerprinting, and "any new technology should support the operational protocols that police have for collection, security, retention and disposal practices, to ensure police are meeting the lawful purpose", it said in a statement on Monday.

It encouraged them to be "open and transparent".

The police union has asserted that the privacy clampdown on voluntary fingerprints was "turning back the clock on preventing and solving crime".

'Digital system'

Police have used electronic fingerprinting since at least 2008. Documents show they want fingerprints to be part of a "fully integrated biometric image-to-image system".

Biometrics are indelible personal markers such as prints, faces and irises.

The company that provides police with facial recognition technology, Japanese major NEC, also currently provides their fingerprinting technology in 50 kiosks at 40 police stations. While 21 'booze buses' can also use laptops to scan prints and faces.

Finger and palm print data is fed into the police's overall information system, ABIS. Various multimillion-dollar upgrades have been taking place around it in recent years.

The tender "looks to replace the physical system with a digital system", with the ability to link to a new application for images of scars, marks and tattoos (SMTs). An earlier contract said they expected to add 30,000 SMT images a year.

Any new system must be able to import an existing 2.5 million fingerprint records from "900,000 personal dossiers", and share data with Interpol. It should be able to scan footprints, and include a custody photography capture system.

The data in the system would likely be at a "restricted" level and New Zealand "is strongly preferred" for storing the prints, with Australia as a backup "if New Zealand is not possible".

The OPC put out a draft code last month that proposes more stringent rules on processing biometric information.

The police are testing the market for new fingerprint technology at the same time that the replacement of the outdated 111-call system has been put on ice; and a mass overhaul of the police's core, but old, intelligence-gathering and analysis technology has been delayed.

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