Mobiles to offer crime scene access to fingerprint database

Fingerprints left at murder scenes could soon be checked against a national biometrics database using a mobile phone under plans being considered by Police Scotland.

Director of Forensic Services Tom Nelson says the public must have their say on any extension of the fingerprint database
Director of Forensic Services Tom Nelson says the public must have their say on any extension of the fingerprint database

The use of handheld devices in police forensic work is being looked at by the national force as part of its 10-year strategy.

The Scottish Police Authority (SPA) said the technology could provide a significant boost in murder inquiries where the first “golden hour” is vital in the collection of evidence.

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Figures obtained by Scotland on Sunday show there are more than 420,000 individuals with a Scottish criminal record who have their fingerprints stored on IDENT1, the UK-wide fingerprint database.

Tom Nelson, head of forensics at the SPA, said the use of handheld devices would allow officers to find an instant match on the database while still at the crime scene.

He added that scientific advances would soon allow police to create descriptions of perpetrators based on a DNA sample.

“The police strategy talks about mobile devices being used at the crime scene,” he said. “If we can get this type of technology on to devices, whether it be mobile phones or some other medium, that begins to allow us to take science to the crime scene.

“A photograph could be taken of a fingerprint and that could be immediately checked against the national fingerprint database. You would know straight away whether it’s someone you may be interested in.”

Last year concerns were raised about the police use of biometric data after Scotland on Sunday revealed mugshots of people who had not committed a crime were being stored for up to 12 years.

A report by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) called for an independent commissioner to be appointed to oversee police use of fingerprints, DNA and photographs.

New figures obtained under Freedom of Information legislation show there are almost 630,000 images of more than 376,000 people in the Scottish Criminal History System (CHS). Police also hold DNA profiles of nearly 330,000 individuals.

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Nelson said any decision to extend the fingerprint database to include the whole population would need to be put out to public consultation.

“To me that’s a decision the public and the government would have to take,” he said. “What it wouldn’t do is solve every crime because a person will not always leave a biometric that will be good enough for identification. But if the public decided that was the way to go, it would certainly enhance some of the work we’re doing.”

Advances in DNA profiling mean that within five to 10 years police will be able to put together a description of a perpetrator, said Nelson.

“You could begin to eventually look at someone’s hair colour, their shape and size,” said Nelson. “That’s where things are going over the next 10 years.”

Earlier this month, police investigating the murder of sex worker Emma Caldwell in 2005 said they had used a technique called Y-STR to obtain the profile of a man on samples taken from the body.

Nelson added: “We’re detecting an awful lot more than we ever would have in the past. Forensic science is making a significant contribution in detecting crime and identifying perpetrators.

“You’ll never be able to solve every cold case with forensics alone, but the more investment we have in the science and research, we’ll get to a point where we will uncover more of those cases. Where the science is taking us is unbelievable.”