DNA databases

What do the innocent have to fear from a DNA database?

The arrival of DNA on the scene – or more literally, on the crime scene – has been the most significant advance in crime detection since the fingerprint. No-one can deny its credentials in terms of securing identification, confirming guilt and successfully aiding not only thousands of current convictions, but also in solving a number of cold cases including 37 murders, 16 attempted murders and 90 rapes.

But just because there are many good and worthy things that can be done with DNA, that does not mean that anything and everything is ok. It’s just the same as with jailing people. Jailing someone is often good and right, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need rules to control who can be jailed, how and for what reasons.

What Labour has decided is that DNA samples can be taken from anyone arrested. They need not be charged. They need not be cautioned. They are simply those members of society the police take to a police station on arrest. Two samples are taken on arrest. This can be saliva swabs or hair. The police are permitted to take non-intimate samples without the individual’s consent. The Forensic Science Service analyses one sample and stores the other – which is retained until the individual would be 100.

So what’s wrong with keeping innocent peoples’ DNA on record? Why are the Liberal Democrats campaigning for innocent DNA records to be destroyed upon request?

As with most much hailed, cure-all solutions, the gritty reality is with concerns and dangers. Some are issues of principle around the civil liberties agenda and equalities. Some are issues of a more practical nature: of fallibility, of misuse and abuse, of security and lack of safeguard, and of possible commercial use and abuse of DNA information.

My own interest in DNA started back during my five-year stint on the Metropolitan Police Authority and has continued unabated in my parliamentary role as Shadow Minister for Police, Crime and Disorder. (I should point out that generally I’m for the first, and against the second and third of those!)

This is a difficult climate in which to campaign on such issues. Civil liberties are out of fashion as this Labour Government – a government that believes the answer lies in ever more surveillance, incarceration and headlines, rather than dealing with root causes, and tries to wrap up every repressive measure in the “tough on terrorism” language.

Liberal Democrats need to speak out and campaign for an end to the indefinite retention of DNA of innocent members of society. And make no mistake – the Big Brother database is here.

The national DNA database now holds over 3 million records, of which over 125,000 belong to people who were neither cautioned nor charged. And amongst them are records from 24,000 juveniles.

Additionally, one third of the black population of England and Wales is already on the database – a far higher proportion that for other people.

Of course, the racists of the BNP just mutter, “oh well, blacks cause lots of crime so it’s no wonder there are so many of them in the database”.

This does not stand up to examination; what the figures show clearly are that the police are disproportionately arresting black and ethnic minorities. They also show that disproportionately more innocent DNA is from black and ethnic minorities than from other communities – i.e. they are arresting not only disproportionately but wrongly. For example, in London, 57% of all innocent DNA is from black people. I have asked Sir Ian Blair, Met Police Commissioner, to investigate the cause of such worrying statistics and this investigation is currently being undertaken.

So if there are other problems with DNA records, then people from black and ethnic minorities will suffer disproportionately. And there most certainly are other problems.

There is already evidence of DNA records being misused. The system set up by Labour is being run in a way which increases this risk rather than minimising it. The DNA profile on the database is unlikely to contain personal genetic information. It can be used to pursue relatives through genetic connection but not information about health or other characteristics. But the original DNA samples (from which the profiles are derived) contain full genetic information and are not necessary for police purposes – but can benefit the companies paid to store them.

The Human Genetics Commission, which advises the Government on these issues, has said that the samples should be destroyed once the DNA profiles (the string of numbers used for identification purposes) have been obtained from them. We now know that’s not happening. In fact, The Observer revealed that a private firm has been secretly keeping the full DNA samples along with highly personal demographic details of the individuals including their names, ages, skin colour and addresses.

Moreover, it has emerged that the Home Office has given permission for a controversial genetic study to be undertaken using these DNA samples to see if it is possible to predict a suspect’s ethnic background or skin colour from them. Permission has also been granted for the DNA being collected on the police database to be used in twenty research studies. The DNA information being collected is not, as the Government would have us believe, being used solely to link suspects to crimes.

Add into this nightmarish mix the Government’s proposed privatisation of the British Forensic Service – currently regarded as one of the finest in the world. Private companies try to make profits – that’s a large part of their reason for being. Presented with a large pile of data which could be misused for private profit, how can we be sure every person and every firm will resist temptation?

So the security of and the access to and ownership of databases is a real problem. In the real world, data ends up being misused – and the only sure protection is not to have the data.That is another reason why destroying the data of innocent people is the right principle. When someone says, “but an innocent person has nothing to fear” you have to add “… if the data is not misused.” How sure can we be about that caveat? It might be deliberate, it might be accidental, but misuse happens. In the US, for example, highly personal details about all the country’s military veterans was carelessly put on a laptop, taken home by a member of staff – and then stolen.

The risks are not only within the UK. At the moment DNA information is only available to other countries on particular request from that country. However, coming down the line are rules changes that would make the data available as a matter of course to all the countries in the EU. The problem with this – as with so many other IT based issues – is security. How can we be sure that such information won’t find its way to unsuitable recipients with commercial or worse intent in any of the many countries in the EU with – inevitably across a large area – very varying standards of security? Will there be a day when an employment form from an EU country to work as a pilot or in a bank has a question simply asking if your DNA is on the database? Will people think: no smoke without fire?

Even worse, DNA is not infallible. Mistakes have and will be made. The actual technique used by British police, according to the Director of the Forensic Institute in Edinburgh, is very vulnerable to contamination. We are the only country in the world that uses the highly sensitive LCN technique (low copy number) which allows crime scene investigators to detect invisible amounts of DNA – just a single cell – where a suspect has brushed against something or even just breathed on it. This methodology is so sensitive that it can detect the DNA of people who have never even visited the scene of the crime themselves – let alone been in any way involved. As a politician I shake hands with many people – so my DNA will be in each of their houses or offices. Get the picture?

Of course, DNA is meant to corroborate other evidence. But as investment goes in, a commercial imperative is involved and as DNA increases its aura of infallibility – will the police (or the public, when the information is ‘conveniently’ leaked?) believe those who say they weren’t at the crime scene even though their DNA was? And how long before corroborative evidence becomes less necessary?

The Government remains adamant that the DNA database has adequate safeguards. I, however, am not so sure. A phenomenal police tool in the confirmation of guilt can so easily become a nightmare scenario. Ultimately, it will be misused, whether by this Government, the next, one in the future, by private companies or by thieves.

We are gradually creating a genetic profile of the entire country, regardless of a person’s criminal history. Our past experiences must tell us that a temptation that big will eventually prove too much. Who can predict to what ends it would be used in the future? Or to put it more simply – we don’t just need to tackle crime, we need to tackle the causes of crime. It’s not just a matter of saying “people won’t be able to do X or Y with the data”, we need to remove the underlying cause which gives people the opportunity and incentive to misuse the data. That means not having a massive national database of innocent people’s records.

But this isn’t just a pragmatic issue, it is also a principled one. Information about me belongs to me unless I choose to trade it for a purpose or my right to it is removed because of my behaviour.

If I want to go abroad, I accept I need a passport and therefore I must give certain information to obtain it. But it is my choice in return for something I want. If I want to drive a car – I need a license and must give certain information and pass a test to obtain one.

If I commit a crime – then I understand that my right to privacy – in this case, genetic privacy – has been sublimated to the rights of wider society to protection from me as I have transgressed.

However, if I am arrested wrongfully, then I expect to be able to choose whether my DNA can be retained on the database or not. As long as I harm no-one, then no-one has a right to take and keep information about me. It’s my DNA!

TAKE ACTION! You can sign the Liberal Democrat DNA petition online now.

This article first appeared in Liberator.

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