UK Parliamentary Committee rejects Government DNA proposals

The House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee has rejected a key part of the UK government’s new plans for the National DNA Database (NDNAD). The plans came in response to the ruling by the European Court that the NDNAD was being operated contrary to human rights law by keeping the profiles of innocent people indefinitely. The database has been filled largely through the provisions of a very vague and wide-ranging provision that allowed the police to take DNA from anyone arrested for an indictable offence, and to keep it even if they were never even charged (let alone charged and not convicted). The result had been that long-standing prejudices within the police had meant a bias in the databases against young black men, and a rapidly expanding set of profiles of children and the entirely innocent.The NDNAD had also been attacked by the HUman Genetics Commission (the government’s own watchdog) which recommended multiple reforms.

One of the main parts of the government’s response to the European Court ruling was that DNA should be retained for 6 years – the committee has recommended that this be halved to 3 years (we are still talking about the DNA of innocent people here…), and that there should be some proper national system for deciding who gets deleted entirely (at the moment it is at the discretion of Chief Constables of local police forces!). Of course all of these leaves the wider question of fairness and rights undebated. There are only two properly just ways to run a database of this sort. One would be to include only the DNA of those convicted of a crime or suspected in an ongoing investigation. The other would be to include everyone (as the UAE has decided to do). At the moment, the NDNAD is, like most things in Britain, an unaccountable mess of law, customary practice and happenstance that pleases no-one and is also remarkably ineffective for the money and effort put into it. This will only improve slightly even if the select committee’s recommendations are accepted.

UK DNA Database Criticised by Report

The UK’s DNA database, already under fire by the European Court of Human Right for retaining samples and data from innocent people, has now been lambasted in a report by the government’s own genetics watchdog. The Human Genetics Commission.

The report, called Nothing to Hide, Nothing to Fear? contains a numbers of serious criticisms, most notably the finding that police forces around Britain are routinely arresting people simply in order to obtain their DNA. Almost a million innocent people, including many children, are now on the database, and the ECHR ruling has finally prompted the government to make some minor concessions, such as keeping the DNA of innocent people for 6 years as opposed to 12, but there appears to have been no fundamental change in police practice, nor any change in the instructions given to local forces on best practice.

It’s main recommendations are:

  1. that there should be a parliamentary debate about the recording of what it calls ‘unconvicted’ people;
  2. that because the purpose of the database has shifted over time, there should be constraints set out in new primary legislation;
  3. that “robust evidence of the ‘forensic utility’ of the database should be produced to justify the resource cost and interference with individual privacy it represents”; and,
  4. that there should be an independent oversight board and appeals board to consider removal of profiles; and transparency over data and other issues.

These are all laudable,  but I really start to question their judgement in using the term ‘unconvicted people’. British law has always worked on the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’. People are therefore ‘innocent’ until they have a conviction. The term ‘unconvicted’ seems to imply that innocence is no longer an assumption, and that the working hypothesis is that everyone is either guilty or not yet (therefore, potentially) guilty. This is what results from the normalisation of surveillance in everyday life, and it’s one thing we warned most strongly against in our own Report on the Surveillance Society back in 2006. When even critical reports start using language that reflects the worldview of the people they are criticising, you have to be concerned.

Calling people ‘unconvicted’ and not ‘innocent’ matters.

Everyday prejudices mean Canadians end up on watchlists

Another great audit report from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner here in Canada, investigating the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada (Fintrac) has just been released. Fintrac, created in 2001 in the Proceeds of Crime (Money Laundering) and Terrorist Financing Act and now with even more extended powers, operates a databases which is supposed to contain details of those suspected of supporting terrorism or money laundering (often on behalf of major criminal and terrorist groups).

However, there is a good story in The Globe and Mail today which leads on the most worrying aspect identified by the audit, which is that in many cases, the Fintrac database is massively overreliant on unsubstantiated suspicions from low-level functionaries in banks, insurance firms and credit agencies. Some of these ‘suspicions’ were clearly simple prejudice as they appeared to be based entirely on ethnicity. Part of the problem is that there are no clear guidelines as to what constitutes a reasonable suspicion in the legislation.

But being put on the database can have serious consequences, firstly because of the potential penalties involved (up to $2m CAN fines and 5-years imprisonment) and secondly, because the information in the Fintrac database can be accessed by Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the Royal Canadian Mounted Police  (the RCMP – Canada’s FBI) or shared with overseas police and intelligence services. In the latter case, as we already know, mounting errors can result in innocent people being subject to ever more harsh treatment including being excluded from countries, placed on no-fly lists or even the UN1267 ‘known terrorists and affiliates’ list, as well as, in the worst cases, opening them up to extraordinary rendition, imprisonment and torture.

Jennifer Stoddart, the current Privacy Commissioner, has a well-deserved reputation getting positive changes made, so let’s hope she can persuade Fintrac to get this sorted out pretty soon.

UAE plans DNA database of entire population

Police in the United Kingdom have recently been forced by the European Court of Human Rights to scale back their increasingly large National DNA Database (NDNAD), which previously potentially included DNA profiles of anyone arrested by the police, whether charged with any offence or not. This at least shows that there is some recourse to law and and a higher authority that will protect the rights of citizens against the extension of state power… in reasonably democratic Europe at least.

However authoritarian regimes need have no such concerns. The Persian Gulf state of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has decided that it is to create a national DNA database of the entire resident population. According to The National newspaper, this will not even need any kind of debate or  even new legislation. They estimate that this will take up to 10 years if population growth is factored in.The paper claims this will be the world’s first such comprehensive database, but this is only partly true. Iceland, Sweden and Estonia have all set up comprehensive DNA databases run by their health services. But the UAE’s certainly appears to be the first attempts at a comprehensive law enforcement DNA database.

DNA pioneer, Sir Alec Jeffrys, has his doubts of course. But learned critique, or opposition or overt resistance are probably all largely irrelevant to the UAE government. However, if there is to be a roadblock,  it may be the economy: the UAE’s population is made up to a great extent of temporary foreign workers of all skill levels and occupation types, and the economy depends largely on the willingness of such workers to continue to come to the UAE. Whilst those at the bottom may feel they have little choice, those at the top may decide that such a policy would make the difference between them coming to and investing in the UAE, or not. The second article claims that ‘visitors’ will be exempt, but not ‘residents’. How this plays out remains to be seen. I have no doubt that the UAE will give in to the pressure of global wealth and find some way of exempting rich foreign residents, whilst making absolutely sure that poor immigrant workers are the first to be sampled.

UK opposition plans to roll back ‘the surveillance state’

The Conservative Party Shadow Justice Minister, Dominic Grieve has launched a brief report outlining the opposition’s plans to introduce a new attitude to surveillance in the UK, and reverse many of the current Labour government’s policies. And it is mostly good, insofar as it goes. But, it is where it doesn’t go that is the problem.

The main measures include things we already knew, like a pledge to scrap the National Identity Register (NIR) and ID card scheme, and proposals to limit the proliferation of central databases and control the National DNA Database (NDNAD). However the Tories also want to abolish the Contact Point children’s database, restrict Local Government’s rights under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), strengthen the powers and functions of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and require mandatory Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) for all new legislation or other state proposals.

So far so good – and these are all things I have proposed myself at various times – but there are also some very weak or pointless elements. First of all, the attitude to the private sector is predictably laissez-faire. Though the report includes a long list of the data losses that plagued the Labour government over the last few years, they fail to note how many of them involved private sector contractors or partners. And their only real mention of the private sector is to suggest that the ICO consults with industry on ‘guidelines’ and the possibility of introducing a ‘kitemark’ (a kind of stamp of approval). These are both pretty much worthless and tokenistic efforts. The Tories, as much as Labour, fail to appreciate that contemporary threats to privacy come as much from the private sector as the public. Unfortunately recognising and dealing with this would require a rather more robust attitude to private business than either of the UK’s two main parties are prepared to muster right now. This, I guess, is the reason why the Tories talk about ‘the surveillance state’ as opposed to ‘the surveillance society’ (the term used by ourselves and the ICO).

Secondly, there is no proposal to do anything to control or roll-back the most obvious and intrusive aspect of the UK’s surveillance society, the vast number of CCTV cameras and systems operated by everyone from the police down to housing associations and schools. In fact there is not a single mention of CCTV or public space surveillance in the report. Rather than missing an elephant in the room, this is more like failing to notice a whale in your bathtub…

Finally, there is the suggestion to introduce a right to privacy as part of a ‘British Bill of Rights’. Certainly what privacy means in British law needs to be clarified and strengthened, but actually this could be done through amending the existing Human Rights Act to make it better reflect the European Court’s already published views on the interpretation of Article 8 of the European Directive. Unfortunately, the Tories are stupidly ideologically opposed to doing anything to strengthen the HRA, and in fact their proposed ‘British Bill of Rights’ is a rag-bag collection of populist proposals that will instead replace the most progressive change to British law for some decades.

Finally, there is no mention of any changes to the pernicious Terrorism Act or Counter-Terrorism Act, that have further undermined the presumption of innocence and other longstanding foundations of British citizenship. There’s no mention of previous legislation that restricted traditional freedoms like the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. In fact, there’s every reason to believe that the Conservative Party will be just as willing to clamp down on such freedoms in the name of the war on terror, or crime, or anti-social behaviour as the Labour Party, and no reason to suppose that they deal honestly with the underlying issues – which would mean, of course, telling people things that they don’t want to hear.

The full report can be found here.