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Fingerprint system crash fuels doubts over ID card scheme

By Nigel Morris, Home Affairs Correspondent

03 December 2004

Investigations into thousands of crimes have been hampered by a serious crash in the police computer system for checking fingerprints.

All 43 forces in England and Wales were affected by the shutdown, which meant officers could not check the fingerprints of suspects.

The collapse of the national automated fingerprint identification system (Nafis) is the latest embarrassing computer failure to affect a public body and will raise fresh questions over the Government's plans for a national identity card system, which will include "biometric" details such as fingerprints.

Nafis, which cost 96m six years ago and holds more than four million records, suddenly went offline on 24 November. The system, run by Northrop Grumman, an American computer giant, shut down completely until Monday. Yesterday one force, not identified by the Home Office, was still offline.

Officers have still been able to collect fingerprints from suspects, but not check them against national records or add them if they are new. In the Metropolitan Police area alone, 600 sets of fingerprints are taken every 24 hours.

Even with Nafis almost fully operational, a huge backlog of records needing transfer its database has built up.

The failure was revealed yesterday in a leaked memo from Bruce Grant, the head of Scotland Yard's fingerprint bureau, warning of a "major failure in the Nafis communications system throughout England and Wales".

David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "This is yet another in a long line of government IT disasters. It is outrageous, given the importance of this sort of problem to the debate on ID cards, that the Government kept it secret."

The Home Office has launched an investigation. A spokeswoman said: "This is the first problem with the system since it was connected. There will be a full 'lessons learnt' exercise."

Government agencies that have suffered serious computer failures in the past include the Department for Work and Pensions, the Child Support Agency and the Passport Agency.

Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "There will be concerns that nobody has slipped through the net because of this breakdown.

"I will raise questions over the need for a back-up system. But, more worryingly, this could be a real warning shot to the Government over any national identity card database."

For decades before the establishment of the magnetic tape system, detectives were forced to check fingerprints by sight, a time-consuming and painstaking exercise. Checks on major criminals were performed centrally at Scotland Yard, which could take months to complete.

Jack Straw ordered Nafis when he was Home Secretary and, until last week, it appeared to be largely trouble-free.

It was said to be the most sophisticated system of its type in the world, and would revolutionise communications between police forces.

A suspect places his or her hand on a glass plate and a fingerprint scan is relayed to a central database, which checks the prints against records of known criminals.