Sunday, February 24, 2008

Ensuring freedom with increasing technology

Would a universal DNA database lead to a police state?

Various dystopias such as '1984' and 'Minority Report' have put the case against universal surveillance.

The fact is that CCTV cameras have already been put in place to deter crime, if not universally, at least in a widespread manner. Speed cameras are well established as a means of controlling the speed of cars on our highways. Motorists don't like them because they perceive them as simply revenue-collecting devices. They recognize that it is not speed that causes accidents, but inappropriate speed for the conditions. 70 mph may be too fast in some conditions but too slow in others. Remember (in the UK at least) the 70 mph limit was introduced during the 1970's oil crisis to save gas. If cameras were used to check average speed over a larger distance - say between toll gates - (stopping the widespread practice of speeding up between cameras) they would be even more unpopular. The answer to that is more appropriate speed controls. Finding out the truth is always preferable to living a lie. Other cameras are present on our roads to monitor traffic flow. Although their primary purpose is to avoid traffic snarl-ups by issuing warnings on radio and by sign, they also prove to be very useful for catching fleeing fugitives.

Businesses and public authorities install cameras to protect their property and deter vandalism. The fact is that such cameras also prove useful to the police in establishing the path taken by victims and their attackers.

Telephone tapping and the installation of audio-bugs to detect criminals is under the strict supervision of a judge or parliament. Improper use will be rapidly pounced upon by the press. No minister could withstand such a charge in the public view.

DNA evidence is less intrusive than any of these. It cannot be used as the only evidence that supports a prosecution - there may be other explanations as to why someone's DNA is found at a crime scene, but such a finding is a legitimate reason for questioning someone.

In the US there are already non-criminals who are on such a database - members of the armed services, for example. Despite the comments on my last posting I still can't see a reason for fearing a universal DNA database.

Let’s take the objections one at a time:

Perhaps the police should be able to randomly pluck people from the streets, and try to beat confessions out of them. Only the guilty need be afraid!

Arresting someone implicated by DNA evidence is not a random pick-up. Cops no longer beat up criminals – if they do they are sent to prison. They too are subject to video surveillance when interviewing suspects. Evidence obtained by tortue is of no value. DNA evidence often obviates the nee for a confession.

Perhaps the police could administer drugs to random pick-ups off the street.

Administering drugs to obtain cofessions is also outlawed.

Everyone should be under surviellance at all times. Every move, every action would be analyzed by the State for possible wrong-doing.

I don’t believe that anyone is envisioning anything like that. Why would they want to?

Here is an example of what it might be used for. A 9-yeasr old girl is missing from her home in Dewsbury for 48 hours. CCTV footage shows her leaving her school and heading north, but after that nothing. Was she abducted? Did she run away? More CCTV footage might have given an answer.

Perfect security and safety could exist if 1/4 of the population was engaged in monitoring everyone. (Even the watchers would be watched.)

Common sense dictates that no such police state necessarily follows from more CCTV cameras and a national DNA database.

What guarantees our freedom is not withholding technology from the law enforcement agencies, but a free press, an independent judiciary, a multi-party state and eternal vigilance.


Anonymous said...

I hate to burst your bubble, but police do assault citizens and get away with it all of the time. I can't speak for England, but in the US, I personally have been beaten by a sheriff's deputy for absolutely no reason (stopped for expired registration on my car).

I called and complained but they close ranks around even the worst cops. You do sometimes hear of abuses, but it's usually because someone has a camera (remember Rodney King???) or the crime is so heinous that even the cops want to put a stop to it.

You have a much higher opinion of humanity than I do.

I just shudder to think how much more unbearable and horrific life would have been under Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Pol Pot, etc. etc. if they had the technology we have today.

I fear the power of government and the faceless bureaucrat. You live in a country that has a long history of generally supporting human rights. As your population changes, though, perhaps even England will lose some of those rights.

I stand by my conclusion that it is better to let some guilty escape than to have, as Orwell so famously put it, a boot stomping the face forever.

Innocents suffer and die to preserve our privacy and our freedom from heavy-handed (and malicious) government.

Terry Hamblin said...

I always knew that America was a developing country, but I had hoped that '24' was fantasy rather than reality. In the UK I think beating up prisoners (at least by the police) is a thing of the past.

My opinion of humanity is not particularly high - that's why I support more video surveillance. Technology is a defence against abuse rather than its cause - your illustration of the Rodney king case supports this.

A malicious government is aided by secrecy. Technology is available to expose wrongdoing.

An internet poll is being conducted by a popular newspaper on whether Britain should have a universal DNA database. Opinion is eaually divided, but considering the fact that about 5% of the population have a vested interest in remaining concealed, I would day that the tide is going my way.

Anonymous said...

America is also the land of the rugged individualist. The image of the lone cowboy, leading an upstanding life of love of God, love of justice, and love of horse, is (or more accurately was) ingrained in the minds of all Americans.

There is indeed a collision between owning unregistered guns, policing your own town, and protecting your own life and property, and giving up those freedoms and letting Mommy Government give you a cookie, tuck you into bed at night, and, yes, let you suckle at the government spigot.

I don't want a damn government camera everywhere I go.

It is unfortunate, but innocents must die to keep a few rag-tag freedoms to us all. They die to give us freedom.

Yes, all bad behavior must be stopped! Or should it??? Should the insult of Gordon Brown be allowed? Should the US flag be allowed to burn? Should everyone who failed to report money earned from a garage sale be jailed?

I totally oppose a DNA database. I'm very worried that the current war on terror will continue to erode our rights in the name of 'safety'.

Americans are well on the road to the slaughterhouse. It sounds as though the Brits are willing marching right along.

How will you feel when Sharia law is the law of Britain, and the theocracy makes sure you pray to Mecca five times a day?

That is not impossible.

Terry Hamblin said...

A little shrill, don't you think?

Sharia law has about as much chance in the UK as horse drawn carriages have of replacing the automobile. The much maligned Archbishop wasn't even suggesting that it should replace the Common Law. His thesis was that there was an incompatability between some religious beliefs and some aspects of secular law and that these needed to be thought about. Accomodations have already been made. Since Moslems are not allowed to lend or borrow with interest, the banks have introduced Moslem-friendly mortgages. Because the law on house purchase was framed based on secular mortgages, the new law meant that moslems had to pay twice as much stamp duty on their house purchase. This was manifestly unfair and the secular law was altered to accomodate the islamic mortgages. Another example the archbishop quoted was legislation which forces Catholic adoption agencies to offer children to homosexual couples. Since it would compromise their beliefs to do so the Catholic agencies intend to close. An accomodation shouild surely be sought, says the archbishop.

There are clearly problems with this view that at least on civil matters the secular should seek an accomodation with the religious (especially on how to accomodate those who claim to be Jeddi Warriors). Sharia law on domestic matters in woman unfriendly. Because of their faith some women might accept this, but others might be cowed into accepting it by male bullying. How would the authorities distinguish between them?

The AbC was certainly unwise (and naive) to raise this topic on BBC radio where he would almost certainly by misunderstood, but in the context of his lecture, it was a topic that should be aired, even if most right thinking people would think the idea preposterous. An open society allows open debate. Open debate requires people to think and allows contrary voices to be heard.

But America was ever a society where regulation is frowned upon and criminals prosper. Indeed the revolution began because the British reduced the tax on tea, which inflamed the smugglers of Boston as they saw their profits undermined.

Or is that prejudice?