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SA Plods plonk boots on privacy principles with fingerprint scanners

Australian Privacy Foundation warns of police 'mission creep'

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With a state election due in March, the government in the state of South Australian has set privacy advocates' teeth on edge over the proposed use of fingerprint scanners by SA Police.

The state government has tested the NEC scanners, and has said it's going ahead with a deployment of 150 units, which will be linked to Android smartphones. However, there's a legislative problem: current laws don't allow beat police to compel an individual to provide their fingerprints.

No problem: all that's required is a change to the law – that's what the current plans if the government wins the election. The Summary Offences Act and the law covering forensic procedures will be amended to allow the police to make use of the scanners (along with 350 Acer Iconia tablets and 150 Samsung Note 3 devices).

That's where the Australian Privacy Foundation is concerned. Today, individuals can't just be stopped and fingerprinted in the street.

“Any proposal to invade privacy of the physical person is extreme, and requires extreme justification,” the APF states in its letter.

While accepting that there's a clear public interest in the collection of fingerprints in some cases, APF chair Roger Clarke told The Register a knee-jerk law-and-order decision in an election campaign was not a good way to pursue what looks like an expanded scope of fingerprinting.

“It's up to the politicians to do proper studies,” he said. “Freedoms have to be balanced with law enforcement powers.”

For example, he said, few people would consider it contentious that someone convicted over a serious crime should have their fingerprints recorded, and there may be arguments in favour of taking fingerprints at the point of arrest (although, for example, if no action follows the arrest, the fingerprints probably shouldn't be stored for long).

Clarke believes there's a strong push by CrimTrac (a federal government police information sharing body) to expand surveillance mechanisms. “CrimTrac is desperate to get footholds in any state they can,” he said. Where there's police “mission creep”, Clarke said, “CrimTrac is in the thick of it.” ®

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