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Editorial: Fingerprint proposal deserves fair hearing

Published:Tuesday | October 13, 2015 | 10:00 AM

Peter Bunting's suggestion for the use of the voter identification fingerprint database in crime detection deserves a far more serious hearing than the fatuous opposition with which the idea has so far been received. He has been accused of, among other things, wanting to unleash fascism on Jamaica.

This issue has to be debated in the context of Jamaica's crisis of crime, including a projected 1,300 murders - five years ago, it was nearly 1,700 - that will be recorded this year, and what trade-offs, if any, the society is willing to attack, and defeat, the problem.

This newspaper, as we have often noted, does not believe that Jamaica's constabulary is nearly as effective a crime-fighting operation as it ought to be, in part because, for a long time, it has forfeited the trust of the population. People believe the police force to be abusive and corrupt, and despite the efforts of reform, the change has, thus far, been insufficient to convince stakeholders of its transformation.

But leadership is not the constabulary's only problem. It lacks, too, the technology and other resources, as well as the quality and volume of personnel, to keep up with a country with a homicide rate that this year will be nearly 50 per 100,000 of population. And with a murder clear-up rate of a steroid-boosted 40 per cent, it is little wonder that Jamaica's criminals seem to act with impunity.

 

Bunting's radar

It is against this backdrop that the potential of the biometric information held by the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ) is on Bunting's radar. In the late 1990s when fingerprint identification became part of Jamaica's voter-registration process, it was part of an effort to combat widespread electoral fraud that was undermining the island's democracy. It has worked. Voter fraud has been substantially reduced, if not totally eliminated.

There are now fingerprints for around 1.8 million Jamaicans on the ECJ's system. The law that allowed for the creation of this database deems this information private; it is not shared with any other agency or institution. That was understandable. For even two decades ago, people were wary of what governments, or even private organisations, might do with their personal information. It is a debate that has intensified in recent years with the rise of the Internet and Edward Snowdon's revelations about the behaviour of America's security apparatus: what ought to be the balance between individual privacy and national security.

 

fingerprint database

In Jamaica's case, and in the instance of the voter database, that issue relates not to esoteric trolling to detect chatter from global terrors like Islamic State or al-Qaida, but whether the police might match the fingerprints left by a group that executed six members of a single family with any of the nearly nine million in the control of the ECJ. The police, of course, have access to a fingerprint database, but it's of convicted criminals, and, therefore, not as large as the ECJ's.

Perchance the law was changed to prevent the reinvention of the wheel and to provide the police with access, the system could be so structured with an independent, court-supervised arrangement that helps to prevent wanton intrusiveness by the police and protection of citizens' rights. At least, there should be an intelligent debate of the matter.