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…
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:
- that there should be a parliamentary debate about the recording of what it calls ‘unconvicted’ people;
- that because the purpose of the database has shifted over time, there should be constraints set out in new primary legislation;
- 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,
- 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.
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.