Identity, Privacy and Trust

Mar 6 2008   7:43AM GMT

Last in line for the DNA database

tobystevens tobystevens Profile: tobystevens

Tags:
Biometrics
consent
identity
privacy
Surveillance
technologies

A little while ago, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) renewed the debate about building a compulsory DNA database for all UK citizens. The Home Office has rejected this idea, and two individuals are challenging the existing of the UK DNA database at the European Court of Human Rights. What’s all the fuss about?


I suspect that many of us are nervous about the idea of a government DNA database. We don’t really know why, but we do know that it makes us uneasy. For some of us, that old chestnut of ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ will apply, and we’re keen to see everyone subject to mandatory DNA testing. Unfortunately I’m part of the group that has solid concerns about compulsory DNA data storage. I’ve nothing to hide, and plenty to fear. How many of us have never had any encounter with the police at all (even if we were the victims)? I was once held (but not charged) under suspicion of causing an explosion, but that’s another story. In this database age, my DNA would have been taken as a matter of course.

Setting aside arguments about the legality under Human Rights legislation, there are three key reasons why I would not be prepared to volunteer my DNA for a government database, and why such a system is so potentially damaging for civil liberties.

  1. Burden of proof for DNA evidence: To date, DNA matching has been a complex and expensive process, governed by strict procedures to protect the evidential integrity of the data. It seems unlikely that such a process could be undermined by the deliberate planting of false DNA evidence, or the conviction of an accused criminal on DNA evidence alone. But all that is set to change as the cost and time for DNA matching comes down. It is already possible to buy a briefcase-sized DNA testing kit, and it seems only a matter of time before DNA is matched in local police stations or even in cars, as is already the case for fingerprints in the IDENT1 system.

    Once this happens, the burden of proof for DNA data will be much lower. Faced with alleged DNA evidence, suspects are likely to accept a caution rather than fight their innocence in court. Even if there is no conviction, the prospect of having the police knock down your front door in a dawn raid on the strength of nothing more than biometric data is distressing.

    We may not see individuals wrongly convicted because of widespread use of DNA, but we will certainly suffer a painful shift in our relationship with the police.

  2. Loss of DNA as a forensic tool: We also have the ugly prospect of security failures in the database. The records therein have to be absolutely trustworthy for them to be admissible in court. The recorded DNA absolutely must belong to the individual it claims to, and samples recovered from crime scenes must be accurately stored. If we are unable to trust the integrity of DNA for evidence, we may end up releasing more criminals than we catch. It is absolutely inevitable that there will be database errors, so it is only a matter of time before the value of DNA as a forensic tool is diminished.
  3. Biometric matching: The third key threat is that of linking DNA data – a knock on the door from the police because someone with a close match to your mitochondrial DNA is under suspicion, even though it’s nobody you’ve ever met. Once again, law-abiding citizens are going to suffer a shift in their relationship with the police simply because of who they are.

I also have a broader concern about unknown possible future uses of DNA. Will genetic testing allow the State to predict who is likely to commit an offence? Might we start imposing ASBOs on children because their parents committed an offence? Or ASBOs on the parents because their children are out of control? Until these questions are answered, surely it must be too dangerous to start amassing large amounts of DNA data. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair volunteered a DNA swab to the system in order to demonstrate his confidence in the technology, although this still reminds me of John Gummer feeding his daughter burgers to prove the safety of beef.

I must stress that I’m not opposed to the principle of DNA analysis, particularly where its provision is with my consent – for example, DNA data that I might voluntarily provide to private companies such as 23 & Me.

And there is hope for consent yet. A challenge in the European Court of Human Rights seeks to force public authorities to remove DNA data from the UK national database if the data subject has not been convicted of any crime. This will go a long way towards redressing the balance of control back towards the individual. Hopefully we’ll see an outcome that expunges the national DNA database of every record except for those of individuals convicted (not just accused of) crimes against the person. Until then I’ll be keeping my DNA to myself, thank you very much.

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