I wrote at Comment is Free yesterday, defending the government’s proposals on retention of DNA profiles in the Crime and Security Bill, and generally arguing against the idea that profile retention is a major invasion of human rights:
… much queasiness about storing DNA profiles is based on a vague perception that they contain something ineffably “intimate” that can’t, so needn’t, be explained. But such higher superstition is no basis for sensible policy: retaining DNA profiles does not meddle with anyone’s soul. Metaphysics aside, being on the DNA database takes away no freedom (and yes, if the bill gets through, I’ll go on it voluntarily). Lord Steyn was right to suggest that any human rights invasion is “very modest indeed”. Against this, keeping even innocent people’s DNA for six years is amply justified in order to fight crime.
I’m not in favour of taking people’s DNA just for the sake of it, but I really do fear that, if we listened to Liberty and the Liberal Democrats, the database would be too small, and would not include some people who turn out to be serious offenders but who were not convicted the first time they were suspected of an offence. The LibDems want only those convicted to stay on the database; I think Liberty is prepared to countenance the retention for three years of profiles of those arrested for violent and sex offenders, as a compromise. Even that, which is the Conservatives’ proposal, seems to me too short a period of retention and perhaps too narrow a scope (unless sex and violence are interpreted widely) for the database to do its job.
The point I’m really interested in, though, is this business about “higher supersitition”. I think one reason why opposition, or concern, about DNA retention has become so popular is that it’s too often assumed without examination, and too often conceded even by the defenders of DNA databases, that profile retention is a real interference with human rights. I know it is legally speaking, of course. I don’t doubt for a moment that retaining a DNA profile engages the article 8 Convention right. I wrote when the S and Marper judgment came out that I thought Lord Steyn had been unrealistic to suggest it didn’t. But I think this is an example of one of the debate-shaping effects of the Human Rights Act: the fact that that’s the correct legal analysis leads too many people to think it’s indisputable in moral and political terms that retention is a major invasion of privacy.
I think those of us who think the government should not compromise further should focus on this first step of the argument. If you think that your DNA profile is somehow the private essence of your humanity and that storing twenty numbers on a computer is messing about with your very nature, then I can see how you might conclude that should be avoided, even if the result is some murderers may go free. I don’t think it is, or that it remotely compares as an invasion of privacy with, say, being arrested – or even with being seen on the street by passers by. If people who think like me can persuade people of that point, we may win the argument that DNA’s investigative potential well justifies the retention even of innocent people’s profiles.
Why does anyone believe that storage of DNA actually prevents crime? How does it do this? But worse, storage of DNA by this or any government allows multiple unnamed people access to personal information. Given the government’s proven inability to securely store virtually all information why is it such a good thing?
This is a nonsense position. The police should spend more time preventing rather than solving crime. How much has and will this venture cost – and how does that compare with the cost of more police on the beat? There are far too many vested interests in the setting up and running of this huge database. Its advocates should be scrutinised very carefully.
Anyway, prosecution does not equate to prevention, and nor does detection equate to prosecution. Increasingly DNA evidence is being discounted or challenged – which highlights the fact that all new technologies start as magic bullets, and end up being discredited.
My reservations with the DNA database have little to do with the purpose and usage of the data in question. I like many others am worried about the governments ability to store data securely. Having a little experience of working within the civil service I have observed horrific moments where personal data has been open to abuse.
The cost of such a database is also a concern as it makes more sense to acquire evidence through investigation by qualified talented professionals; rather than dervitory methods from hits off a database.
.-= Zak Choudhury´s last blog ..What happens when David plays Goliath? =-.
The words “innocent until proven guilty” don’t mean anything to you, do they?
They do, Innocent, believe it or not. What I think you’re doing, though, is using the idea of the presumption of innocence in a sense that goes much wider than its real meaning. If the police reasonably suspect you of a crime, they can arrest you – before you’re tried, and without having proved you guilty beyond reasonable doubt. You can even be held on remand for weeks, perhaps even months, before trial. Is that a breach of the presumption of innocence? I think it is, on your understanding of the presumption.
In fact the presumption means simply that you shouldn’t be punished by the state without your guilt being proved. Retaining your DNA profile is no sort of punishment – nothing is done to you or happens to you beyond the storage of those numbers. If you insist that the storage pains you so much that it is, in your view, a punishment – well, surely it follows that arrest and detention are even more punitive. You should be campaigning against arrest and detention before trial.
Chuck, Zak: aren’t you both arguing against any kind of DNA database, however restricted? The logic of both your argument holds, I think, even if only convicted violent and sex offenders were on the database. It could still be accused of being ineffective and insecure.
Well if I was remanded in custody for long enough – and I had enough money to pay a lawyer now that Legal Aid has been effectively abolished – I suppose that lawyer could get a writ of habeas corpus just so long as said lawyer didn’t mind it going on their MI5/SIS file.
I accept, though, that DNA information is not different in kind from other information (such as photographs or hearsay) that the State may collect on its citizens. Nevertheless, the logic of your position is that I have no grounds for objecting, say, to the installation of CCTV cameras in my home just as they were in Winston Smith’s. Your position seems to be that those who have done no wrong have nothing to hide or to fear.
By any reckoning, that means, Carl, that you are an enemy of freedom.
That’s just rhetoric, Innocent.
I’m amazed you’re so untroubled by the idea of being arrested. Funny that in that case, one safeguard is enough to make you think “that’s all right then”.
You mention cameras, but there really is no connection at all. I suppose I could say that by opposing my position on DNA you’re “the criminal’s friend” or want murders not to be investigated at all. I don’t, because that’s not the logic of your position and it’d be silly for me to claim it was. I think your claim about cameras is just as silly, to be honest.
On “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” – I’ve not used that line or argument at all, except to quote it in my Guardian piece since the phrase (as a question) is the title of a paper I referred to.
I had better give up on rhetoric if you can’t recognise irony. And it is possible to hold a position in effect without saying it in so many words.
Zak will speak for himself, but yes, I would argue against any database – until such time as those holding such data can be trusted with it. So far there is no good reason to believe that is so. As I have already indicated, access to such data, sanctioned or otherwise, is outside of the control of those who have provided (or are obliged to provide) that information.
If anyone divulges or uses any such information without agreement they should be held liable in law. Damage may or may not be quantifiable – simply because once information is in the public domain it is there theoretically in perpetuity. Thus the hazards (hence liabilities) remain indefinite.
I don’t mean offence but you can’t declare someone an enemy of freedom if they support the database. I infact do support the database, but I really don’t think it should be easily acessible by law enforcement and certainly not be ‘in the care of’ the government. Maybe permission from a judge kind of thing.
I believe that if we’re not far off from being able to create life from scaratch http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/262724.stm
Then we should put strict controls on the storage and access of our DNA data.
.-= Zak Choudhury´s last blog ..What happens when David plays Goliath? =-.
No worries, Zak – we tend to have a high and civil standard of debate here, and very little offence is given or taken.
Innocent, sorry – I didn’t detect any irony…
Chuck, interesting that you oppose a database in its entirety. Part of what I’m trying to do is deconstruct the DNA-sceptic viewpoint, which appears to be a united movement opposing the government but is I think in reality a broad alliance of convenience between people many of whose views are incompatible – people who want a database, but only for the innocent; people who support the Conservative position; and people who oppose a database altogether. People who hate the ECtHR and anything European, and people who agree with it whatever it says.
Well Carl that’s an interesting view. I’d say that development and implementation of (and let’s just deal with DNA for the moment) the database ought to be fully justified prior to action. My reservations about security are but one aspect. Just because we are capable of doing something doesn’t mean that we should actually do it. Yes, people may object for a variety of reasons – that does not invalidate the objection itself. Similarly people may choose to vote for political parties for a variety of reasons.
Where is the real value of a database? The argument is that it helps solve crime. I doubt that this is a genuine justification for the huge costs and equally huge risks. Another argument is that it may help to advance medicine – and straight away we are into the commercial use of our personal data collected by (a very large number of) government agencies. [As an aside, why is advancement of medicine so important? We are confronted with an aging and decaying population, mass starvation in the Third World, etc. The race to extend the life-cycle seems futile. Why not concentrate on quality rather than quantity? But this is another discussion altogether.]
If people were allowed to opt in only, if samples and records of the unconvicted were automatically and immediately destroyed, that might assuage the fears. But what is clear is that such people as ACPO and the Government believe this is another tool for control of the populace, and have vigorously defended the notion of retention in perpetuity.
In principle I object to additional control – unless there is good cause and unless that control is clearly and permanently defined. So far, advocates of a database have been unable to put up cogent argument and have appealed to emotion. That is not good enough and it is certainly not a decent basis for law-making. Recent (reactive) legislation has been appallingly ill-considered, rushed and botched. I have no reason to believe that legislation for the database will be of any better quality.
Ultimately it may come to a question of trust. A wise man will not trust any government or branch of government – and certainly not a European government. When these organisations manage to prove their integrity and honesty maybe public scepticism will be reduced. After all, all organisations are only as good as their weakest links – and there are far too many of those. Would you trust Brussels with your most personal details? That is where we are headed.