Mobile Biometrics are not Ready for Law Enforcement Use Cases


“The barrier to adoption of biometrics by law enforcement agencies is a disconnect between the creators of the technology and their understanding of law enforcement use cases.”

When someone says that to me during a research interview, I stop taking notes and listen.  In this case the speaker was Nick Selby, CEO of StreetCred Software.  Mr. Selby is also a sworn law enforcement officer (LEO) working in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, so he knows whereof he speaks.

Researching the upcoming report, Biometrics for Mobile Devices, I encountered a number of vendors with use cases for law enforcement agencies.  To triangulate those data points, I decided to ask Nick what he thinks about those use cases.  As a preamble, I should state that he is as techie as anyone I know and really wants biometrics to work in his world.

But the use cases are not realistic.  Consider this photo of an officer taking a fingerprint with a mobile device.  He is focused on getting the technology to work.  And he needs the suspect’s cooperation to get a fingerprint.  Who has better situational awareness in this photo – the officer or the suspect?  If the situation suddenly turns hostile, who has the advantage?

Essex Police

(Source: Essex Police)

Both of the officer’s hands are required to use the fingerprint reader.  As Nick pointed out, armed officers need to keep one hand near their weapon in case it is needed.

That photo fuses many of the points that Nick made.  Most in-the-field uses of biometrics by LEOs involve less-than-ideal, often dangerous situations.  The first priority should be officer safety, then everyone else’s safety.  Imagine if that photo had been taken on the side of an icy motorway at night.  Making sure that the gadget worked should require zero attention cycles from the LEO.   And should assume no cooperation whatsoever from the suspect.

Ruggedness is also an issue.  I’ve watched the videos of dropping a mobile device from 2 meters and then using it again – after putting the pieces back together.  Those are impressive.   But consider what cop-ruggedness means with this age-old anecdote from law enforcement:  “You’re chasing a suspect on foot and you’ve almost reached him, so you take out your Motorola police radio and throw it at the suspect.  That knocks him down, then you pick up the radio and call in to report that you’ve apprehended the suspect.”  LEOs love their Motorola radios and they love their Panasonic Toughbooks because both survive incredibly hostile environments and sometimes incredibly hostile usage.

Officers work in a world that few of us inhabit or understand.  They face situations that most of us will never face.  And they actively resist any new technology that they perceive will put them at risk or add steps to a process that is already working.  For mobile biometric devices to have a place with law enforcement agencies, the vendors must spend more time with LEOs to understand their daily work.  The technology is there.  As I discovered repeatedly in my research, proper use cases precede adoption.

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