Top judge: put everyone in UK on the DNA database
Wiggy jurist wants a more inclusive society
One of the UK's top judges has thrown a grenade into the smouldering debate around the national DNA database, saying that everyone in the UK - including visitors from overseas - should be on file.
Lord Justice Sedley, a senior appeals court beak, said the current situation was "indefensible."
At the moment the database contains the genetic signatures of around four million people. Anyone arrested for a recordable offence (meaning all but the most trivial misdeeds) is sampled and filed. In England and Wales, that's it; you're normally in for life. Under Scottish law the plods must delete the file if they fail to get a conviction. If you are convicted though - even for quite minor crimes - again, you'll be on file forever.
Given the current state of British society and policing, this means that the database contains a large number of ethnic-minority files, which is one reason why it comes in for criticism.
"Disproportionate numbers of ethnic minorities get onto the database ..." Sedley told the BBC.
The good judge reckons the database is too useful to get rid of, however. He is also against the discarding of old files, or ones where no conviction has resulted. Apparently there have been cases where serious villains have been nabbed purely because of DNA files which would have been deleted under a less sweeping data-retention policy.
Given that he's in favour of keeping DNA files on people for life, even where there is no conviction, and he's against letting contact with the police be the criterion for sampling in the first place, Sedley feels he's left with only one place to go: sample and file absolutely everybody in the sceptered isle, even those who are just visiting. It's the only way to be fair.
There could be a few problems with that.
"A great many people who are walking the streets and whose DNA would show them guilty of crimes, go free," says the judge, and that has to be true.
Nationwide sampling would be sure to trawl up a significant number of uncaught criminals. But the jails are already full; so we're not just talking about a huge multibillion pound government-IT disaster, but also a big prison-building programme; or else letting a lot of people out of jail to make room.
But Sir Stephen isn't bothered.
"Everybody, guilty or innocent, should expect their DNA to be on file for the absolutely rigorously restricted purpose of crime detection and prevention."
Others were a little sceptical, particularly about that last part. The Beeb quoted Prof Stephen Bain of the database's strategy board as saying:
"If the information about you is exposed due to illegal or perhaps even legalised use of the database, in a way that is not currently anticipated, then it's a very difficult situation."
At least some among the plods, too, aren't sure that they fancy trying to keep a titanic DNA database on every single person in the UK. Top Lincolnshire cop Tony Lake favours keeping files forever on violent offenders - or maybe just people suspected of being violent offenders - but perhaps deleting other files after a time.
"If people have been convicted or have been arrested for offences which involve violent crime or offences of a sexual nature, I think there is an argument [that DNA] should stay on the database for life," he said.
"If we are talking about very minor offences... I don't think that it's a problem to say let's have a means by which we would reassess if we want to keep that DNA."
The government says it has no plans to sample everyone just now. Perhaps worryingly, however, Tony McNulty (the minister for plods'n'spooks, who has advocated compulsory sampling before) said:
"No-one ever says never."
It wasn't clear whether he followed this with a sinister chuckle or not.
In the end, Sir Stephen may be right and the current DNA database system may be indefensible. But, as he says, it's probably too useful to bin. Perhaps the only truly fair thing is to file everyone up, as he says.
Here at Vulture central we don't really know what's fair. We've got some idea what's practicable, though. Given the track record of big government IT in terms of cost, timeliness, accuracy/error rate etc - let alone the non-IT type snags with sampling everyone at passport control, overflowing prisons - it seems safe to say this proposal isn't actually achievable. Not at any kind of reasonable cost, anyway.
Details from the Beeb here.®
@Mr Nothing to Hide
I'm glad you are such an example of moral probity that you've never looked up data that you're not entitled to see.
Can you say the same for *all* of your colleagues?
> I know the application and database security well enough to understand that I wouldn't be able to access such information, even if I wanted to.
And I know someone who had a temporary job with the Inland Revenue. Within a day he'd shoulder-surfed his boss' password and could log in with full privileges and could have looked at anyone's details or even deleted their tax records.
I know someone else who worked for the NHS whose supervisor was in the habit of leaving his computer unattended whilst still logged in.
It is very easy to find ways to access information illicitly.
If you know enough about computers you'd know this too.
Oh, BTW, if you have Nothing to Hide, why are you posting anonymously?
What about equality under the law?
It looks like there are a lot of raw British nerves these days regarding efforts to keep the citizens "safe". Most of the comments seem to be reacting to the heavy handed, overreaching actions of the government. In the US we have our own overreaching, heavy-handed government and I agree that it needs to be challenged.
But I also think the judge's remarks are consistent with an EQUAL and JUST society. If the law-enforcement tool of a DNA DB is going to used then then the criterion for how it is populated should be consistent with an equal society. Right now it's populated with both convicted persons and those persons who have had the unhappy circumstance of attracting police attention but have not committed a crime. By virtue of being in the DB, the unconvicted people are lumped into a single group (possible future criminals) and are treated differently than the unconvicted people who managed to escape police attention.
If the government is not willing to give up any data, the only way to equalize the situation is to collect ALL data, thereby diluting the stigma of being in the DB. When everybody is a potential suspect, nobody stands out. With a few well-publicized wrongful arrests the DB won't be such a panacea.
Personally, I find the concept of the DNA DB disturbing for a number of reasons, many of which have already been discussed here. But the current method for populating it has a capricious aspect to it that is also disturbing. The threshold for attracting police attention is getting lower with every "threat" which means the DB holds more non-criminals every day.
I think the judge is right to present this argument to the public. It's well past time data collection critera are publicized and questioned. I hope every one of you will write a letter to your elected representatives, whatever your opinion.
pity the fools with nothing to hide
You may have nothing to hide, that you know about.
However a fact that has already been said countless times, you have everything to fear about a possible repressive government or just a callous institution who have no interest in you as a person, your rights or the truth but have a lot of interest in stats which make them look good.
If one day some person decides that a certain trait in DNA mean someone is predisposed to expose themselves to old ladies and you happen to have that so called trait, you are going to get a lot of visits from the police who have already judged you (because the DNA says so) for questioning. Your neighbours and friends will notice. Are you going to explain to them and face more uniformed judgements or keep it quite and try to explain away the number of police inquiries you have? You now have something to hide.
Then ten years down the line its discovered that mistakes where made and no trait ever existed, the whole theory was rubbish. How would you feel about those 10 years of accusations and all the grief you got from them?
You may say, "that'll never happen.", Well I have news for you, it already has, countless parents have had their children taken from them based on bad research and been accused of things they never have done. They had nothing to hide too.
You may say the police wouldn't use the data like that. Well the uses of data has change on loads of things. Like using car number plates to make you pay taxes on entering a city, that was not the primary purpose. Also the police are using the DNA database in the current context, to detect crime, they just happen to be using a different method than before, they no longer need DNA at a crime where there is none, just find out who has the trait in the area and let them prove their own innocents.
You may welcome that kind of society and if you agree with DNA database and profiles, you deserve it, but many others and I will never accept it.
There is a serious lake of control and care over the DNA database and it points to a very disturbing conclusion that can be seen from at lot of recent examples and that is that the UKGov don't care about you as a person and the possible harm it does in implementing its controls over all aspects of your life.
Meanwhile the police are acting as political thugs in their zeal in what appears to be a claim that everyone is a criminal, they just haven't been caught yet.