Police use of mobile fingerprinting technology for immigration enforcement

graphic of a silhouette of a person sitting behind bars head in their hand, a fingerprint graphic behind them and a red border.

The Racial Justice Network and Yorkshire Resists, in conjunction with Queen Mary University of London, released a new report written to draw attention to the national use of the Biometric Services Gateway (mobile fingerprinting) by police forces. The report discusses issues that arose from new data obtained through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request from the period of March 2019 to June 2020 to all police forces in the UK.

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, and conducting a report on the local use of the devices, the Racial Justice Network and Yorkshire Resist sought to further understand how the devices were being used across the U.K. felt a report was needed to draw further attention to the unethical and targeted use of mobile fingerprint scanners. 

Our first report revealed the main concerns regarding the use of biometric fingerprinting device 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. This second report builds on these concerns by drawing attention to how police forces across the UK are using these devices and further highlights the adverse national impact of increased police powers within the context of increasing surveillance technology.

Key themes identified in our report:

  • The FOI analysis on the use of mobile biometrics showed the roll out of mobile fingerprint scanners has taken place very quickly with no public consultation or equality impact analysis. 
  • Systematic racial bias was evident in every police force that provided race data.
  • There is no consistency across police forces as to when or why they use this technology. There is no consistent approach to checking fingerprints through the databases. Each police authority implements a different approach with no clear justification or rationale. It is very unclear why police search only the immigration database (IABS) or the police database (IDENT 1) or both. 
  • England is the only country in the UK that piloted this technology and is in the process of hastily deploying it. Two police forces in Wales piloted the scheme in 2019 and are not continuing its roll out. Police Scotland and North Wales Police emphatically stated they have not and will not use mobile fingerprint scanning given legal and ethical concerns
Text on an aquamarine background: The rolls out of mobile fingerprint scanners has taken place very quickly with no public consultation or equality impact analysis. Systematic racial bias was evident in every police force that provided race data. A graphic of a hand holding a fingerprint device is in the bottom left corner. In the right are the logos of RJN and Yorkshire Resists.
Text on a lime green background reads: Kent police overwhelmingly have the highest proportion of immigration arrests (17% of scans led to immigration arrest) and contact with Home Office Command and Control. A graphic of someone being put behind bars by police is at the bottom, with the hashtag #HandsOffOurPrints. RJN and Yorkshire Resists logos are in the bottom left of the image.

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

  • The highest number of scans per area are Met Police (34 in 10,000), Surrey Police (24 in 10,000) Cheshire Police (17 in every 10,000) and Lincolnshire Police (15 in 10,000).
  • For every White North European person stopped and scanned in every 10,000 people, 48 Arabic people are scanned on average across the police jurisdictions.  
  • 14 Black residents are scanned for every White North European, 14 Asian people, almost 4 Chinese people or 2 South East Asian people for every White North European.
  • Kent Police overwhelmingly have the highest proportion of immigration arrests (17% of scans led to immigration arrest) and contact with Home Office Command and Control.

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.

Download the pdf report on STOP THE SCAN: Police use of mobile fingerprinting technology for immigration enforcement:

Report on the public perception of police fingerprint scanning

Cross-posted with The Racial Justice Network.

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.

Watch our video: 

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

Is the police a border force?

The discovery of 39 dead Vietnamese people in the back of a lorry Essex lorry deaths sent shock waves across the country hitting headlines for weeks. It highlighted the extreme lengths that people have been taking, looking for safety and sanctuary in the UK. Scenarios like these have been seen and repeated innumerable times across Europe. These events implore us to  reflect and consider what these events tell us about us, about oppression, about colonial legacies that continue to refuse to own its culpability.

Such deaths draw attention to the conditions that people are running from in their home countries – what is it that would invoke such desperation? What would make a person risk their lives and the lives of their children? To look upon the vast expanse of a blue sea or blink into the dark of a hot, cramped back of a truck and see their future there. It’s been documented but worth reiterating, loudly, that it’s events like climate disasters, global economic inequalities, wars funded by companies with government subsidies and tax breaks in the countries that people flee to. Most of the counties that people are moving from don’t make the weapons that are killing them.

A picture of two people walking towards the UK border control at Heathrow airport. The border guards await them in perspex booths. Lines are made from barriers, but there's no crowd to contain.

Sad events like this also do something else. It highlights the poor attempts by some media outlets to view this tragedy as faceless, victimless and not deserving of empathy. The immigrant narrative, at first devoid of names, described them as just dead bodies. The most important bit about that sentence is that they were dead. Not humans. Such coverage perpetuates the dehumanisation of already dehumanised Black and Brown lives. It actively discourages the traces of compassion and empathy that such situations should always stir.

Much of this coverage also conveniently put the blame solely on the driver and the trafficking world, much like the blaming of the individual man whose flat started the fire in Grenfell and not state-driven racist migration policies. However to really address the issue, we ought to look at the compounding factors that lead to these disasters. Like racism, classism and capitalism.

The portrayal and perception of Black and Brown communities as just numbers mean channels of travel from economically poorer countries, ex-colonies and the Global South to the Global North have been effectively shut down. Whilst the majority of European and North American citizens can travel freely and at their own convenience to the rest of the world. Corporations continue to exploit former colonies and territories of occupation, having emptied those countries, committed land grabs, imprisoned and tortured those that have dared to speak out. But the opportunity of travel is not reciprocated. Big business is involved in creating policies that make travel for some harder. The recent announcement of an introduction of tier system migration affirms the message that the UK wants rich and educated migrants.

This unfortunately means the problem will persist, blaming the traffickers is just sticking a plaster on a century’s old gaping wound, as opposed to acknowledging the root cause of the problem. Efforts could be put into exploring and addressing the reasons why people continue to risk their lives to enter territories that do not really value their lives.

Despite having the equality act, human rights legislation and all sorts of policies, it is clear that some communities are left behind, suffering in fear and silence. The Stop the Scan campaign is raising awareness and resisting this form of the Hostile environment whereby police forces around the country are using mobile biometrics fingerprint scans that have access to the home office migration and criminal records. This means communities are afraid to engage with the police even when they need help, protection from  abuse, violence  or hate crime. This situation was highlighted not long after the Grenfell tower Fire when communities in fear of authorities were unwilling to come forward. The fear of the authorities meant we couldn’t quickly count our dead, we couldn’t grieve. Perhaps if there was less fear we would quickly know the 39 who were as young as 15 and as old as 44 who were sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, mothers and fathers.

A UK Metropolitan police van in motion, lights flashing.

A solution would be to detach migration border force roles/work from the police. Numerous enquiries have found them guilty of racism, how can this not impact on how they deal with Black and Brown migrant people. Other sectors have been involved in hostile environment delivery, health care, education, housing, driver licencing and the banks. Imagine being afraid to report a crime committed against you, to go to the GP? Crossing a border should not make you illegal.

A debt is owed to those countries that were underdeveloped to help build and make the West  rich. Global inequalities that stems from colonialism must be addressed alongside ways of readjusting that balance. It would involve a form of reparatory justice. We haven’t even begun to collectively think about that. It would mean treating ‘others’ as we would ourselves. It would mean seeing borders as defunct and not just another way of performing nationhood. It would mean no one could make money out of desperation. We can only hope.

Article by Penny Wangari-Jones @racejustice @yorkshireresists