While legislation governing personal information is still pending, the SAPS has already mandated the roll-out of fingerprint ID switches, which will impact on access to personal information.
“Private companies are now crossing the public/private divide. As state information becomes available in the private arena, it’s going to have a profound effect on privacy. It’s an incredibly invasive process,” says Paul Jacobson, of Jacobson attorneys.
While the system was originally designed for the public sector as a means of helping police combat crime, the technology will soon become the primary means of security checks for private companies. The SAPS is scheduled to terminate its name clearance checking service by ID numbers as soon as June.
The decision comes as the country’s police service deemed it no longer has the capacity and resources to conduct clearance checks on behalf of the private sector.
The SAPS issued a tender for a service provider to manage and implement automated fingerprint readers for the private sector. The tender was won by Ideco, a JSE-listed biometrics technology provider.
The system will interface with the SAPS’ automated fingerprint identification system (AFIS) to determine a person’s criminal record status. By capturing digital fingerprints using electronic fingerprint biometrics technology, clearance checks will now be done only by fingerprint ID.
While the implementation was scheduled to be completed by January 31, the SAPS says “outstanding issues” will see it completed before June 2009.
“Fingerprinting in itself is not very different from ID referencing. The difference is that now results will be informed from a range of government databases. Companies will not just be looking at a single database, but they will be accessing government information on people. It is becoming more and more invasive and sidesteps any rights to privacy,” Jacobson states.
Through AFIS, private companies can now do background checks on job applicants and existing employees. The technology interfaces with the police’s AFIS database and can yield results within 48 hours. The Department of Justice and Constitutional Development states the AFIS database has 6.4 million fingerprints and a latent fingerprint database – fingerprints lifted from crime scenes belonging to unknown suspects.
“The question becomes what legitimate interest companies have in accessing that degree of information on people?” Jacobson asks.
While Section 37 of the Criminal Procedures Act states the taking of fingerprints is not compulsory, even in instances where a person had been convicted of an offence, Jacobson says this provision is not enough.
Karin Doyle, MD of Ambit Recruitment, says while it is the candidate’s right to refuse to give fingerprints, “it would certainly cast a shadow” over them, and negatively impact on their chances of employment. While some may see it as an intrusion, others don’t have any objections to it, she adds.
While she notes that the system is not “economically viable” and that it might not be the most convenient solution, she describes it is a “sign of the times”, and states it will soon become standard industry practice.
Michalsons Attorneys partner Lance Michalson says the employer should have regard for the privacy principles set out in the Protection of Personal Information Bill, once it is enacted; “especially those relating to the purpose for which [the information] is used”.
“Regarding the obtaining of fingerprints, this is a privacy invasive issue, as is the case with all types of other biometric physical characteristics. Here one needs to balance the needs of the employer versus the right to privacy of the individual. Fingerprints fall within the definition of ‘personal information’, as defined in our pending data privacy law, which is still being drafted by the Law Commission,” says Michalson.
According to Mike Silber, a Michalsons consultant, some legislation specifically requires a criminal record clearance certificate; such as for casino employees and commercial driving licence-holders. The AFISwitch “really just automates the process, speeding up delivery and ensuring the prints taken are valid”.
Efforts by the departments of home affairs, justice and constitutional development and the SAPS to link all their databases to improve crime-fighting initiatives will lead to bigger problems, says Jacobson.
“This is incredibly invasive and it is a bit scary. I would hate to have some company have access to my personal information, which I don’t share for various reasons.”