Yesterday I attended a cabinet office briefing on eID Identity Assurance, part of the G-Digital project. Anything with the word identity is a political hot potato in the UK after the new Tory-LibDem coalition government literally ‘crushed’ Labour’s National eID card scheme. I wondered why apparently it’s one of the deadliest of privacy sins in the UK to suggest using the same unique identifier in one’s dealings with different government departments. Just rename NI Number to ‘Citizen Service Number’ like the practical Dutch did with their SOFI number and Bob’s your uncle. Isn’t this what governments have been happily practicing in Sweden and most other EU countries for decades? In the UK it seems this is a ‘no-go’ area because of the implied impact on citizen’s privacy. God forbid that someone in the DWP’s Child Support Agency could easily trace a deadbeat father in a HM Treasury system and find out that he can easily support his children after all. Or god forbid that someone claiming housing benefit from his local council could be found out actually owning six properties in the next town. That kind of joined-up government ‘just wouldn’t be cricket’ in the UK.
Data Protection in the old days
When I took up my first job in the UK as ‘Master Data Controller’ for Philips Business Systems, my employer made sure I was well trained and fully aware of my responsibilities under the new Data Protection Act. This act and the European Directive on which it was based is now of course hopelessly ‘out of date’ in our Google and FaceBook era. In the old days we worried mainly about enterprise and government data bases being misused. iPhones recording your every move without your knowledge were not yet on the horizon.
Apart from my honour bound duty to keep Personally Identifiable Information (PII) private and safe, the main things I fondly remember today are the carefully drafted Data Protection Principles. One that was particularly etched on my consciousness was the third principle that said: “Personal data shall be adequate, relevant and not excessive in relation to the purpose or purposes for which they are processed”. This important principle is also reflected in the second Law of identity shortened to the head line: ‘Minimal Disclosure for a Constrained Use’. In the explanatory notes of Kim Cameron’s master piece it is explained that it is wrong to keep personal Information “just in case it might one day be required”.
In the UK ‘privacy’, like ‘beauty’, seems to be in the eye of the beholder. If it’s good or bad depends if it was the other political party who came up with the idea in the first place. Wouldn’t it make more sense to just stick to the EU rules the UK signed up to?
So let’s look at another UK example, where trampling on privacy rights by the state seems to be ‘not a problem’ because it’s for the ‘common good’. The UK now stores the DNA profiles of more than a million innocent people on a crime data base “just in case” they might one day turn into criminals and provide a match with DNA found at some future crime scene. The Minority Report nightmare in other words.
The UK was quite rightly convicted over this data protection violation and human rights breach at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in the case of S. and Marper. The culprit actually was the Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police as officer with data protection responsibility for his force, but you can only take states to the ECtHR, not individuals.
On the 4th of December 2008 the ECtHR unanimously ruled:
“In conclusion, the Court finds that the blanket and indiscriminate nature of the powers of retention of the fingerprints, cellular samples and DNA profiles of persons suspected but not convicted of offences, as applied in the case of the present applicants, fails to strike a fair balance between the competing public and private interests and that the respondent State has overstepped any acceptable margin of appreciation in this regard. Accordingly, the retention at issue constitutes a disproportionate interference with the applicants’ right to respect for private life and cannot be regarded as necessary in a democratic society”
Incredibly UK Police forces up and down the country are today still adding thousands of ‘innocents’ DNA profiles to this data base every week and are refusing to honour appeals of citizens that protest that their Human Rights and privacy is still being violated, well over three years after the Police were convicted.
When challenged, their legal representatives often will write back ACPO drafted obfuscating letters stating that forces are still ‘bound’ by the discredited and overturned decision of the house of lords in R (Marper) v Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police  and that this somehow gives them the fig leave of an excuse to hang on to all this DNA information for dear life. This is of course a gross distortion of natural justice and hides what is really happening here.
In my opinion the UK Police are in effect behaving like the pigs in George Orwell’s Animal farm. Remember the Seven Commandments of Animalism? “No animal shall sleep in beds” is changed to “No animal shall sleep in beds with sheets” when the pigs are discovered to have been sleeping in the old farmhouse. “No animal shall drink alcohol” is changed to “No animal shall drink alcohol to excess” when the pigs are discovered drinking the old farmer’s whisky.
In the same vein, no doubt after a huge lobby from the Association of Chief Police Officers, a new section was quietly slipped into the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) by the Criminal Justice Act 2003. A simple paragraph update ( approved in some committee, not in the House) now suddenly states that a non-intimate sample ‘may’ be taken from an individual without the appropriate consent and no senior police officer needs to be present. DNA taking is now an official crime fighting activity police officers can be targetted on just like the number of speeding tickets issued. Note however, that in no way this simple word ‘may’ implies an ‘obligation’ on the part of the police to take the DNA of anyone who passes through their doors under false pretenses. But this is todays reality for over a million innocent people in the UK: Because somewhere in 2003 the law makers used the word ‘may’ this gives the police today a fig leave of an excuse to keep violating Human Rights and Data Protection Principles ‘at will’, even though Labour lost an election, partly over this specific issue of erosion of civil liberties and the UK Supreme Court has now ruled “the retention of the DNA samples of these appellants was
unlawful”. How arrogant is that?
With hindsight using this sloppy wording could be compared to giving vampires the key to the NHS blood bank and telling them they can have the occasional sip if they are feeling a bit faint. The police was quick to abuse their new found powers. Having been told a national DNA data base was politically untenable, they decided to build one by stealth. UK NDNAD is now the largest of such databases in the world. The ACPO IT lobby practices and propaganda techniques are copied in every state in America and far beyond. Look! Another horrible crime solved using DNA! Let’s collect more!
Like the Chief pig in Animal farm abuses the animals’ poor memory and invents numbers to show the improvement in their safety. Notice how Chris Sims, the Association of Chief Police Officers forensic science spokesman, in his testimony for the House of Commons committee discussing the Protection Of Freedoms Bill used an arbitrary number of DNA matches rather than any extra convictions obtained in court by keeping the wrong people on the DNA data base?
This relentless propaganda is why police men and women up and down the UK are now more familiar with the much abused caution quoting ‘necessity for a prompt arrest’ (so they can take your DNA at Police HQ) than the famous words ‘anything you say may be taken down and given in evidence in a court of law’.
Innocent until proven guilty now means innocent until the next time the Police determine a match with your DNA (or even that of a distant relative) with any dirt that is dropped and subsequently swept up at a future crime scene, that is of course, if there is any manpower budget left to do so, after overspending on all these surveillance cameras, facial and number plate recognition systems and other IT gadgets of course.
Debra Orr commented dryly in the Independent newspaper: “Then suddenly it becomes clear. A society in which the police sit around, [behind their computer screens no doubt]waiting for crimes to be committed that would fit the profile of their ever-growing pool of suspects ….. is just a lazy, dumb and prejudiced society”.