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UK.gov says no plans for FBI DNA database hookup

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The agency responsible for UK's police databases has insisted there are no plans to give overseas law-enforcement agencies automated access to British biometrics. Not yet, anyway.

The so-called "Server in the Sky" plans which have made news in recent days supposedly would allow US agencies direct access to biometric information held in UK databases.

But the National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA), which is responsible for the Police National Computer, the national DNA database and IDENT1 (the British fingerprint and palmprint files) told the Reg there had been no discussions about the plan.

The idea of "Server in the Sky" is that the traditional intelligence/security axis run by the Anglophone nations of the former British empire - the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand - would be extended into regular law enforcement. Most significantly perhaps, the cooperation might go as far as the interlinking of national biometrics databases. An FBI agent on a case might be able to check DNA from a crime scene and get a hit from the UK database, for instance. Or a British plod might likewise get one from the States, though America holds much less data.

The NPIA said that the initiative was the brainchild of the Feds, with a spokesperson saying "it is an FBI proposal".

The FBI have also said that there might be a central database of some sort - presumably run by themselves, or jointly, holding some details copied from UK and other national files. The FBI said this would be limited to "the worst of the worst", meaning serious terrorists or other desperate international crooks.

The NPIA is the natural UK point of contact, but said it had held no discussions specifically about Server in the Sky. It said in a statement:

The NPIA is aware of the FBI's 'Server in the Sky' as a concept, through wider discussions on information management and sharing held with colleagues from the International Information Consortium [which consists of] the FBI, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, NPIA, CRIMTRAC (Australia) and NZ Policing [the Consortium is] a small consultative group who hold broad discussions on technology solutions...

When discussed in this forum, there were no specific discussions on timescales or on the practical implications of delivering and managing such a system.

The NPIA also said specifically that: "NPIA is not planning to link IDENT1, the UK police fingerprint computer, to the FBI."

Asked if that meant that the DNA database and/or the Police National Computer would be linked up, the response was:

We haven't got even to the planning stage and have no further details. It is an FBI proposal and any active participation has not been discussed.

This is not to say, of course, that such discussions won't take place in future. Such things have been known to move from "not even at the planning stage" to fait accompli quite fast, often when nobody's looking.

That said, biometric and other checks are already routinely done by British plods at the request of overseas colleagues - or even, in the case of special-branch coppers, at the indirect request of foreign spies or secret policemen. (Not necessarily nice English-speaking ones, either, if the UK spooks happen to owe someone a favour.)

Nonetheless, the proposed hookups could hugely widen such access and remove even the murky oversight offered by the present system of cops, spooks etc. Worst case, any small-town American deputy, forensic tech or whoever could use a DNA sample to locate, blackmail or stalk anyone who'd ever had a sample taken in the UK - and you don't need to be a criminal nor even charged with a crime for that to happen.

We contacted the UK Information Commissioner's Office, which has the job of making sure that Britons' private data stays private, for comment. As of publication we haven't heard back. ®

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