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.

2010-03-27T15:57:32+00:00Tags: , , , , |