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.
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…
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.
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…
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.