It seems the UK’s coalition government is about to perform a spectacular U-turn with regards to its Protection of Freedoms Bill and their position with regards to DNA retention of innocents. The new government has always promised it would be adopting the protections of the Scottish model for the retention of DNA and fingerprints of people arrested, but not convicted. Where the Scottish model is often praised as striking a fair balance between the rights of the state and those of an individual, the current Home Office practice sponsored by the previous Labour Government earned the UK on Dec. 4th 2008 a stern conviction in Strasburg by the European Court of Human Rights. In May this year this humiliating conviction was again confirmed by the UK Supreme Court, who also ruled that this – three years later still operational – practice breached UK citizens’ ‘Right to respect for private life’ and that current guidelines as drawn up by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) are ‘unlawful’. The Telegraph today reported the shocking news that this shameful situation may be allowed to continue in disguise and I am trying to get to the bottom of this story in this post.
First I must say I enjoyed Alex Massie’s comment in the Spectator : “Sir Humphrey would be proud” he said and allso called the news a “grubby little piece of u-turning”. Say one thing, do completely the opposite and in ‘Yes minister’ style claim no one is lying! Innocent people’s DNA profiles won’t be deleted after all it seems. Or is a double U-turn on already on the way?
Others have commented that the timing of the Telegraph article is ‘suspicious’. They argue the paper has been making a mountain out of a molehill and distracting from the real issue which is the retention of photographs and PNC/PND records of these same innocent people, which may not be addressed in the current bill. The timing of this news is viewed as weird/suspicious as well as the article was placed several weeks after Brokenshire’s letter was made public.
Not unusual in Home Office/ACPO circles, a lot of woolly language is being used by civil servants to obfuscate the issue. Compliance to Human Rights to privacy and Data Protection Principles depends, it seems, on the exact definition of what exactly constitutes a DNA profile that needs to be erased and what is Personally Identifiable Information (PII) in relation to the physical DNA sample wrongfully taken from a person by the police at the time of his/her arrest.
Sir Humphrey would like Home Office minister James Brokenshire to believe that only some links between computer records are at stake here and need to be deleted on the orders of the ECtHR when a person is proven innocent after a wrongful arrest. They also would have him believe a ‘DNA profile’ could be considered as just a string of numbers connected to a record of arrest in police computers. Not unlike a postcode points to an address. NDAD apologists will often argue that such strings of numbers say nothing ‘private’ about individuals and certainly would not reveal sensitive information about sex, race or other information about our genetic make up. Strictly speaking this is of course correct, but like usual the devil is in the implementation detail. Not only is this abstract number illegally stored by the UK state in a bout a million cases, but also the original samples from which the sequence of numbers was derived are illegally stored by the commercial labs that did the analysing and sequencing. Therein lies the rub for many privacy advocates. The Strasburg verdict explicitly orders the UK state to delete the DNA ‘samples’ of Marper and S. Leaving them intact in these fridges can’t be right! The discredited ACPO ‘exceptional procedure’ also claims to delete them, unless of course police are economical with the truth here as well?
It is clear that campaigners on the Reclaim your DNA on FaceBook pages and other civil rights organisations don’t give a hoot about the distinction between the profile sequence number and the physical sample from which it was derived. They want everything deleted and destroyed that according to them never should have been unlawfully taken, often under false pretences and with the flimsiest of pretexts. Many distraught victims of this abuse of power by the UK Police don’t even realise bits of their personal DNA are stored in industrial fridges in commercial labs around the country, courtesy of their local constabulary! They also will also be blissfully unaware that their genetic information has been used for 20 academic studies into criminal and racial profiling and that the private firm analysing the samples has secretly kept copies. Who else will the police sell this information too?
A DNA profile is in a sense nothing but a string of numbers, representing peaks on a bar chart. Imagine this chart printed on one of those X-ray photos or transparencies doctors like to use.
If you super impose the bar chart of DNA found on a crime scene, with that of a ‘suspect’ on a data base and you see a lot of overlap in the peaks and troughs, there is a high chance that DNA evidence found at a crime scene is related to the ‘suspect’ in one way or another. However to prove someone guilty, a lot more is involved like establishing means, motive and opportunity. But when the only evidence in a foul crime is a DNA match and the tabloid press invokes a public outcry, police can get sloppy and start to cut many corners! Sometimes they can even selectively turn deaf and blind, ignoring evidence that points in a different direction!
A DNA profile is in fact just an encrypted set of 20 numbers plus sex indicator, that reflect a person’s unique DNA makeup. In fact so unique it can practically be used as a person’s identifier. Using a string of numbers rather than an actual photo of the DNA chart enables a computer to do the comparing instead of an expensive geneticist, who would perform this task by using his trained eyes and experience. However the computer only can determine if a number falls within a pre-determined range and so determine a ‘DNA match’. The computer program doesn’t add the usual cautions that a biometrics expert might add in court. It just compares if the resemblance is between two arbitrarily set minimum and maximum values used for eliminating false positives or incorrect negatives. PC plod, who is not scientifically trained and often lazy or over worked however thinks: “Better lift that person out of their bed for questioning, coz he/she ‘must-a-dunnit’. Computer says so!”
So what seems to be the current problem around DNA erasure as promised by the UK Government?
Sir Humphrey (with the ACPO IT lobby giving him ear ache no doubt) this week said in a written answer to parliament that deleting the physical samples (the little q-tip swabs they took) transferred to little glass laboratory vials might prove tricky. It turns out one of each two samples is stored in big trays, labelled by bar codes, in big expensive industrial fridges in private labs alongside the millions of vials of the real convicted culprits and perps. Lifting the million innocents’ vials (swab -B) out of these batches, while leaving the four million they are allowed to keep in situ, is turning out to be very expensive Sir Humphrey claims! But he will smash up all the trays with samples ‘A’ for the tabloid press, so it looks like the Police are doing the right thing and nobody will ask any questions about the second samples.
And.. says Sir Humphrey, if on the computer we simply erase the name pointers linked to the bar codes we have in fact achieved our purpose and compliance by anonymising the tubes so they never can be linked back to an ‘innocent’. This is where the deceit kicks in, because it seems that, depending who you talk to, there are ways to connect the bar coded vials back to an innocent individual en restore the link in these computer databases. Just think of the countless back-up tapes made over the years. Do we, who worked all our lives in IT, really think all these back-up media will all be erased or cleansed? Dream on!
The obvious question here is of course: “Why did they think it was necessary to keep all these physical DNA samples/vials with swab B in the first place?” Just ask the labs to smash the whole tray of vials, innocents and guilty, after they have extracted the required profile numbers! Ah…. says Sir Humprey….. We need to keep these physical samples so we can… Ehrr..in the near future re-profile all these samples again with more sampling points and greater accuracy, because Ehrr.. as the data base grows, we are already getting more and more ‘False Positives’ and ‘False Negatives’ as any biometric expert could have predicted at the start of this sorry saga.
Written evidence submitted by Professor Peter Gill to UK parliament said thatUK national DNA database (NDNAD) is now ‘out-of-date’. New genetic markers have been developed that give greater accuracy, which of course you will need if you fill up a crime data base with millions of innocents or would like to expand to Europol levels! Witness the rise of a whole new industry in Europe where theUK is lagging behind because we jumped on the bandwagon too soon! Invented in theUK, perfected abroad. A bit like our transport systems really.
Minister Brokenshire, had he been properly briefed, should at this point have pointed out that if we had followed the Scottish model and only stored the DNA of convicted criminals, we wouldn’t be in this mess! We also might have money left over to do things right!
One dry comment on the Telegraph page reads: “Home Office spokesman says within individual police systems, profiles are recorded in batches and it is not possible to delete one without affecting the rest, including convicted offenders? Tough! Delete or do something useful like resigning!”