It seems that once again we have cause to thank an appointed, non-democratic body for protecting us from our elected government here in the UK. I’m referring of course to the House of Lords, which has again stepped into the breach to halt the slow erosion of our rights.
This time they have just voted to impose an amendment to the government’s attempts to maintain a national DNA database containing samples from everyone ever arrested for a recordable offense. You’ll notice I just said arrested there, not charged or convicted. If you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, like 14 year-old Kathryn Lay for example, then your details could be on the database. If you volunteer your DNA to help with a specific investigation you’ll be on there too and once on, it’s practically impossible to get yourselves removed again.
Some will question why this might be a problem. Surely if I haven’t committed any crimes then it doesn’t matter, right? Ignoring that logic like that could be extended to allowing 24 hour surveillance of anything you do, just in case you suddenly did something which might be considered criminal by the government of the day, there are a number of reasons that it’s still not a good idea:
- Reliability: DNA tests, contrary to popular belief, are not 100% reliable. While tests based on STR comparisons (Short blocks of repeating chemical patterns in the DNA sequence) have theoretical failure rates of around 1 in a billion, this assumes a perfect comparison test being performed. Errors in sample testing, data entry or the use of partial samples can make those odds much lower. There have already been cases of mistaken arrests based purely on DNA evidence. Peter Hamkin for example was arrested in Merseyside for murder, on the basis that his DNA fingerprint was said to be a perfect match for the man who shot Annalisa Vincenti in Tuscany in August 2002. Never mind that he had an alibi supported by dozens of people and had never even been to Italy, he had to be guilty because the DNA test said so. He was eventually released before trial, but other cases might not be spotted so easily.
- Discourages future investigation: Once the police have found a DNA match for a crime scene, there will be a lot of pressure to discontinue further investigations. DNA matches bring with them an assumption of guilt even if unsupported by any other information. Anything which brings convictions based potentially on only one piece of evidence is likely to lead to an increased number of innocent people being imprisoned.
- Security: The UK government doesn’t exactly have a great track record of keeping your data safe. In 2007, 37 million items of personal data went missing. Still want to trust them with your DNA fingerprint?
- Abuse: While you might completely trust the current UK administration, remember the people in power change regularly and they will have access to the same items of information currently stored (for our safety). It’s a lot easier to frame someone for an offense if you can fake a DNA match. You also need to assume that the database will be used for means other than you might initially imagine. The RIPA legislation, introduced to allow the monitoring of terrorist communications, has subsequently been used by local councils to snoop on their residents for a wide range of other things, including littering and faking their address to get into a local school. What’s to stop a national DNA database being abused in a similar way?
- Privacy: Some people will say that this is less important, but I like to feel as citizens in any country, we have a right to privacy. If I choose not to inform the government of everything that I do, or allow them to track or monitor me during my day-to-day life, then providing that I am not doing anything to harm anyone else and behaving in a sensible manner within the society in which I live, then I should be allowed to do so. Asking for privacy shouldn’t come with an assumption of guilt.
We already in the UK have the largest DNA database in the world, a rather dubious distinction I would suggest. Let’s hope that the government head the Lord’s advice and, as a minimum, make provision for people unconvicted of any crime to get removed from it.