Saturday, February 23, 2008

Is my DNA safe with you?

Just as Britain has more CCTV cameras than anywhere else in the world it also has more DNA records than anywhere else. Perhaps coincidentally there are more people in prison than anywhere else in Europe.

A story in the Times today suggests that the European Court might order the destruction of 13% of those DNA records. Currently, the procedure is that anyone arrested for a criminal offence has his or her fingerprints and DNA taken and these remain on the database, whether or not the person is charged or convicted. Although someone inadvertently caught up in the investigation can petition the local chief constable to have his record eliminated, this is at the Chief's discretion. Obviously, there are cases where the police are convinced that someone is a criminal yet lack the evidence to obtain a conviction, and in these cases the Chief Constable could use his discretion to retain the DNA and fingerprint information.

I think that this raises questions over civil liberties that need to be teased out. The inadvertent loss of laptops and computer discs recently have raise the possibility that DNA data may not be secure. Currently, there is a BBC serial running which takes the Civil Liberties viewpoint and suggests that we are an over-observed and regulated society. In the serial a private sector firm that runs the database is clearly cast as the villain. We will have to see what happens in the long run, but if the BBC runs true to form we will be told that nationalized firms are good; private sector bad, that surveillance is bad and freedom from surveillance is good.

This needs to be set against the fact that this week two serial murderers were convicted by DNA evidence. Both committed sexually related crimes and in both cases the victims' families are calling for the death penalty. (This is a separate but related issue, since the most convincing argument against the death penalty is that you might execute the wrong man; something that is less likely to happen with DNA evidence). One of the killers was on the database because years ago he stole money from the till when he was working as a barman; a rather trivial offence for which he got community service, but his DNA would still have been there had his employer decided not to press charges after his arrest.

It is difficult to know why America isn’t making the running on this. Normally, America leads the world in technological advances. But of course there is a strong strand of individual freedom running through the American democracy. It is commendable that people should mind their own business. It used to be said that an Englishman’s home is his castle, but that applies especially in America, where there are extreme limits on how much the state can intrude on an individual’s space.

In discussions about freedom the question always arises of where freedom becomes license. A car sharing story illustrates this. Though rare in the UK, car-sharing lanes are relatively common in America as an attempt to beat snarl up. To share a car represents some inconvenience to the sharers but benefits the community by reducing the number of cars. To recompense those who make the sacrifice faster moving lanes of traffic have been devised which are barred to cars with single occupants. In an effort to claim the benefit without the sacrifice, drivers have put blow-up dolls, enlarged photographs or even disguised dogs in their passenger seats. Loughborough University has come up with the design of a camera that can see through these ruses. It is hoped that they will make a lot of money exporting these to the States. Respectable, middle-class people have a criminal heart too.

Should we object to this surveillance? There are obviously possible abuses of the power inherent in so much information, but we have a free press and the political process to guard against that. A DNA data base that apparently criminalizes a group of people who have never been convicted of a crime is obviously unfair, but why should there not be a universal DNA database? Only those with something to hide should object to it. There will be some who have paid their debt to society who have changed their name and started a new life who might object to being unmasked, but there would anyway be a data trail that could unmask them, and if only the government held the information in an encrypted form, it should be free from unwarranted prying. A lot of the scare stories owe more to the imagination of a science fiction writer than to real life.

What clinches it for me as a Christian is that we see ourselves as under universal surveillance at all times. And the sanction against us is far worse than a few years in prison.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Only those with something to hide would object." What chilling words!

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!

Perhaps the police could administer drugs to random pick-ups off the street. Only those with something to hide should fear this!

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

Perfect security and safety could exist if 1/4 of the population was engaged in monitoring everyone. (Even the watchers would be watched.) But what a loss of freedom we would suffer.

Avoiding a police state means that some crimes will occur, and go unpunished. That is unfortunate, but that is the price we must pay for what little freedom we have left.

I suggest a re-reading of 1984 is in order.