The UK Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, has posted a comment piece on The Guardian website as a response to the Human Genetics Commission Report on the UK police National DNA Database (NDNAD). It basically says, there’s a long history of balancing security and liberty, we’ve got it right and we won’t be changing anything – all padded out with a lot of nothing. Johnson seems like a decent person (unlike many recent holders of this office) and it seems a shame that he’s reduced to producing this substandard waffle in defence of the indefensible. I do wonder what it would take to convince this government, which is now clearly on its last legs, that they were wrong about anything…
Research in the UK has shown that police forces in Britain are continuing to add the DNA – and incidentally the fingerprints, although this is never mentioned – of innocent people to the DNA database despite the European Court of Human Rights ruling that it was illegal (and the government’s promise to accept the ruling). According to The Guardian newspaper today, 90,000 innocent people have been added to the National DNA database (NDNAD) since a the court ruling and the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) – incidentally, a private organisation – is still telling chief constables to continue with this collection. On the other hand the process of removing individual profiles has been painfully slow: only 611 DNA profiles of innocent people have been removed, and all as a result of individual challenges in court. It seems that the police are determined to drag their feet as long as possible and, in fact, break the law quite openly. Hardly a good example…
I was at a meeting organised by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) today (Wednesday) in London where both Jack Straw and Michael Wills from the Ministry of Justice spoke. In the wake of the expenses revelations it was not surprising that both sounded somewhat conciliatory, but the degree of both overt and tacit admission of mistakes and changes needed was quite surprising. I had a bit of a set-to with Michael Wills on the apparent lack of knowledge amongst government ministers of the results of their own research on the (in)effectiveness of CCTV, to which he responded with the Melanie Phillips defence – i.e.: come and talk to ordinary people and they will tell you they want CCTV. This is a diversion for many reasons, not least of which is that unlike both the Daily Mail’s moral minority and the minister, I actually live in places where they only visit on official business and I also understand that what people mean when they demand CCTV is not the technology itself but a solution to the real and perceived problems of crime and anti-social behaviour that they face. They only demand CCTV because they see the programs on TV and are convinced that CCTV ‘works’ – however if you talk to senior police officers or anyone who has done research on this, they will tell you, yes, targeted mobile CCTV surveillance to deal with specific problems can be very effective (in terms of both cost and results) but mass camera surveillance is not the same thing. It is rather disappointing that a Justice Minister did not appear to understand the difference.
Jack Staw gave a weird speech. It was both full of matey bonhomie and characterised by stuttering hesitancy and vagueness. He made a number of historical errors, for example in claiming that the culture of secrecy was a product of the Cold War, when the first Official Secrets Act was a product of WW1. He also claimed that CCTV was all about ‘low-level disorder’ and ‘reassurance’, which will be news to all those (like his ministerial colleague) who still think it prevents crime. But he did rightly take some credit for Freedom of Information, including allowing parliamentary expenses to be included, even as it turned out, to his latter-day embarrassment.
Where it got very interesting was in his comments on the government’s consultation on the future of the DNA database following the damning verdict of the European Court. Contrary to Jacqui Smith, Straw indicated that he would be quite happy with the proposed 12 year retention period being reduced to 9 or even 6 years. He also claimed that there was a behind-the-scenes review of The Terrorism Act and other post-9/11 measures going on, which I don’t think many people in the room even appreciated. He admitted that the Labour government got many things wrong after 9/11 and that the environment had now also changed.
It was all very interesting, but you really got the feeling that this was a government on the way out anyway. The Tories will no doubt scrap the ID cards and register, but listening to the Shadow Justice Minister, Dominic Grieve, I got the impression that they don’t have much to offer apart from caution. That might be welcome for a while, but as a speaker from Google remarked, the debate is so far behind the reality of technological change that none of this will really matter very much unless there is a real culture shift. The ICO under the massively influential Richard Thomas, for whom this was very much a valedictory event before he steps down, has made great strides in this direction, but the government and opposition parties are still a long way away from understanding the need to establish a new basis for informational relationships between people, state and private companies that we desperately need.
As if the govenrment wasn’t in enough of a bind over the police National DNA databases, in a landmark ruling yesterday, the High Court of England and Wales has decided that the DNA of the innocent should not be on the database in the current legal circumstances. The man from County Durham was maliciously accused of assaulting a pupil at the school at which he was a teacher, and despite volunteering for questioning was arrested, fingerprinted and swabbed. These records were of course kept despite his innocence.
This story reminds us that being on the NDNAD is not an isolated thing, but part of a complex network of records that do imply suspicion (like it or not) – even Sir Alec Jeffreys, who pioneered DNA fingerprinting, thinks so… in the case of this teacher, he would have been wrongly suspected every time he applied for jobs working with children.
This is another indication that the government’s policy on the DNA database and police tactics to populate it, have been not just morally questionable but illegal, and confirms that the response issued this week was inadequate and devious. It will be interesting to see how they might now immediately have to modify their plans to conform to this new ruling (which, being a British court, they can hardly blame on ‘un-British’ European law)…
The government’s official response to the damning ruling by the European Court over the retention of DNA and fingerprint samples and data is a farce, which seems utterly contemptuous of the ruling and reasoning of the court, shows no sign of understanding the significance of Article 8 or the British common law principle of innocent until proven guilty.
One thing that has struck me recently in the UK has been the sudden increase in the level of defensiveness by New Labour over the surveillance apparatus it has constructed over the last 12 years. Report after report has damned their slapdash attitude to human rights and civil liberties – we expect the government’s official response to the Lords Constitution Committee report next week – and there have been attacks from various political ‘big beasts’ including David Blunkett, former MI5 Chief Stella Rimington, and most recently Stephen Byers and even current cabinet ministers reportedly asked for the ID card scheme to be scrapped.
As a result, there has been a splurge of sudden backtracks, retreats and promises of change and consultation on future plans but there have also been rather devious attempts to avoid taking real action to remedy already existing wrongs. In the first category, we have seen the abandonment of Clause 152 of the Coroners and Justice Bill, where a an blanket permission for government data-sharing had been hidden, and there have been suggestions that the proposed new super-database of communications traffic data might not be constructed after all – though largely, it seems, on grounds of cost not principle.
However, in the second category, today we got the government’s official responseto the damning ruling by the European Court over the retention of DNA and fingerprint samples and data by the UK police. It is, to put it mildly, a farce, which seems utterly contemptuous of the ruling and reasoning of the court, and shows no sign of understanding the significance of Article 8 for individual liberty. Mind you, it also shows little sign of comprehending the British common law principle of innocent until proven guilty.
The government proposals are to retain the DNA samples and profiles, and fingerprints (these are just as important and not so often mentioned in the news reports) of all those convicted of a crime. Of the innocent, the National DNA Database (NDNAD) has around 350,000+ people who are certainly in such a position, however the police apparently need two years to go through the Police National Computer to check the other 500,000+ DNA profiles of those not convicted of any crime, as they can’t be sure whether existing profiles match to those who have committed offences (so much for joined-up government…). Then those people, who are, let’s not forget, entirely innocent in law will be sorted into two categories – those arrested but not convicted for serious and violent offences, and those arrested and not convicted of minor offences.
Will the latter have their profiles immediately removed, as we might reasonably expect?
In fact, these innocent people will have their DNA profiles and fingerprints retained for 6 years – more than the number of years (5) that Scotland retains the DNA of those suspected of serious and violent offences. Those in the latter category will have their DNA profiles and fingerprints retained for 12 years. In addition the profiles of children will be retained until they are 18, and then removed only if they have been arrested (again, not convicted) for one minor offence.
Is this an acceptable response? Quite clearly not. It is against the spirit of the ruling by the European Court, even if it might be interpreted as complying with the exact wording issued. More to the point, it is an attempt to get around the difficult issues, not deal with them. It is devious, based on the pre-emptive logic of risk-surveillance principles, and goes against the long-standing principles of British Common Law as well as more recent developments in Human Rights law, and is not the response of a government that has any trust in the people who elected them. It allows the police to continue to populate the NDNAD by stealth. And they certainly are using whatever methods they can to do so – for example, one key indicator is the rise in the number of stop and searches under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act, which in London, it was also reported today, rose from 72,000 in 2007 to 170,000 in 2008, a rise of 236%, however it rose by 325% amongst the black population. There seems to be no mention of the role that discriminatory stop and search policing plays in populating the NDNAD in recent government statements, however it is quite clear that stop and search policing is discriminatory, and we know too that young black men are disproportionately represented in the NDNAD.
In this climate, with a government obsessed by pre-emptive security to compensate for its growing loss of power and trust, and a police service that appears, after the G20, increasingly out-of-control, what is the chance of developing a fair, accountable, just and transparent system of personal data retention in law enforcement in the UK? At the moment, it could appear, the answer is ‘very small’.