The Home Office has confirmed to OUT-LAW that the ID Card Act and the Serious and Organised Crime Act contain provisions for the mobile devices to access the entire population database, which will eventually carry fingerprint information for the whole population.
"They could check a fingerprint scan against the ID card register, but they have to have checked the police fingerprint database first," said a Home Office spokesman. "Should the trial be successful and implemented then the police will be able to do in the field what they can now do in a police station."
The ID Card Act allows the database to be used for "purposes connected with the prevention or detection of crime," while the Serious Organised Crime Act allows police to carry out checks outside the police station in the same manner in which they currently can in a police station.
Dr Chris Pounder, an expert in privacy law at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM, said that he agreed that the law allowed for the extension of the system into the population database. "I think the Home Office analysis is correct," he said. "There is nothing stopping this in the ID card legislation."
Ten police forces in England and Wales are trialling the mobile fingerprint machines, which send a scanned print to the national database using mobile phone technology to be checked. The machines are being used to identify drivers in conjunction with the increasing number of number plate recognition cameras on the roads.
In the pilot the machines can only be used with the permission of the person involved, but should the scheme be activated nationwide the Serious and Organised Crime Act would give officers the same rights outside police stations as inside them.
If officers have reason to suspect a person of being involved in a crime they can stop and search that person, and can take a fingerprint from them. If the person refuses to identify themselves or give a fingerprint a DNA sample can be taken from them by force.
The Home Office spokesman said that a fingerprint could only be checked against the whole population database if the person refused to identify themselves or if the police had reason to believe they were lying about their identity. It can also only be checked if the police database is checked first.
The mobile machines can only be used as part of the stop and search process, which means that in order to use them police must have suspicion that a person has been involved in a crime.
Footnote: Dr Chris Pounder was a consultant with Pinsent Masons until September 2008. He now runs a new training business, Amberhawk.