Police officers will be able to take fingerprints and carry out identity checks on people in the street with new mobile devices.
The devices will be rolled out nationally after pilot projects with 20 police forces generated "generally positive feedback", said the National Police Improvement Agency (NPIA).
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The scheme allows officers to check someone's identity on the spot. Officers, who must gain consent from the person they are checking, can take the fingerprint using the device. It will be sent back to a database, and a message will be sent back to the officer within a few minutes saying whether the person is on it. The fingerprint taken by the mobile device will not be stored, the NPIA said.
The aim of the project is to save time for police officers, who previously had to take members of the public back to a station to check fingerprints.
The NPIA said the project "helps improve public safety by establishing a person's identity and therefore preventing criminals from slipping through the net".
But civil rights campaigners say members of the public may feel under pressure to give fingerprints when it is not legally required that they do so.
NO2ID, a campaign group against the national identity scheme, said there needs to be legal protections put in place. The group called for assurances that any failures in the technology would be reported to Parliament, and asked that it be made illegal for the fingerprints to be checked against any database other than the criminal databases. They said, for instance, that prints should not be checked against the proposed national identity database.
The group asked that it be made illegal for the fingerprints collected on the streets to be stored, and asked that police officers be banned from arresting those who refuse to give prints.
The NPIA has put the contract for the national project out to tender, and hopes to implement all devices by early 2010.