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    Washington Post: More Washington area police using mobile print reader, but critics worry about privacy

    The Washington Post reports on a crimefighting tool used by area police, mobile fingerprint readers. The handheld scanners make it easier to identify individuals, which is why the police are using them. But, that ease also gives unscrupulous officers incentive to fake reasons to demand that individuals submit their fingerprints. Officially, “unless suspects are under arrest, they can decline the fingerprint scans and any other biometric collection.” However, I question how voluntary this decision can be when an officer has already decided that you need to be identified because he or she finds you suspicious.

    More and more police departments are relying on high-tech tools to solve crimes, and the science is getting more sophisticated. With a simple upgrade, for example, the fingerprint readers can take a picture of a suspect’s eyes and use the pattern of the iris for identification. Police say they hope the iris scanners will hit the streets in the next several years, a development civil rights activists say could lead to a troubling and unwanted surveillance of the general public.

    The fingerprint devices came to the region in 2007 through a $14 million grant Fairfax received from the Department of Homeland Security. They cost about $2,300 each and work through remote cellular technology. That money spread the technology to other departments as well.

    When a fingerprint is scanned, it is electronically matched against a police database of more than 1 million prints. If there’s a hit, it comes back within minutes, often with a picture of the suspect. Officers say participation is voluntary unless a suspect is under arrest. […]

    But civil rights activists, including Christopher Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, are concerned about the new tools. He questioned whether police agencies should have this type of anti-terrorism grant.

    “This is money from the Department of Homeland Security. There should be a connection to terrorism in some way,” Calabrese said. “This doesn’t seem like anti-terrorism. It seems like mass surveillance of the innocent population.”

    He said criminal investigations would benefit if police knew the identities of everyone on the streets. “But that would terrorize ordinary people and make them fear their government,” he said.

    Last year, officials in the United Kingdom expanded the use of mobile fingerprint scanners to all police forces. Australia began using handheld scanners in 2006.

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