DNA Retention: Stupid or Scary?

Not so long ago, Søren posted an item on this blog welcoming the ECHR’s verdict that the UK policy of storing DNA samples from all people who’d been arrested, regardless of guilt, was in contravention of Human Rights laws.

A couple of days ago, the UK government published its response.  It’s either remarkably sinister or remarkably silly.

In essence, the proposal is that, if you’ve been arrested but then not charged with, or acquitted of, an offence, your DNA can be kept for six or twelve years, depending on the offence for which you were arrested.  The details are available from this page of the Home Office website.  And the rationale offered is… um…  Well, let’s just say that there’s a few glaringly obvious problems.

I feel a rant coming on…

OK.  The first thing to note is that there seems to be a few reasons offered as to why it’s necessary to keep a DNA database of innocent people.  The Home Office is keen to point out that DNA evidence can help prove innocence.  Other points raised relate to detection, and to public protection.  Let’s look at them in turn.  It won’t take long.

(1) Proving Innocence.  “The database has provided a pioneering method not only for catching the guilty but also in proving innocence,” says the Home Office.  Doubtless.  But they seem to have forgotten the idea that innocence is the starting point when dealing with suspects.  They don’t have to prove their innocence.  That’s taken as read.  Now, when it comes to appeal, that is reversed.  (Here the presumption of innocence lies with the CPS, I suppose.)  But, that being the case, it’s not clear how retaining the DNA of those never found guilty will make the blindest bit of difference, just because we’d be dealing with someone who has been found guilty.  Should it turn out that his DNA doesn’t match that from the crucial bloodstain, then that’s that.  I can’t see for the life of me why it should be important that the DNA of people not guilty of anything should be retained.

(2) Detection.  This baffles me.  Quite why keeping a record of those never found guilty of anything should help with hunting down those who are guilty of something is beyond me – unless, of course, the tacit assumption is that we’re all suspects of everything, and those who’ve been arrested just happen to be convenient gene-donors.  That doesn’t seem to sit so easily with the presumption of innocence, though.  Moreover, it seems to imply that what we really should be doing is taking a DNA sample from everyone, the better to be able to nail them if they do ever happen to commit a crime.  That’s a bit troubling, for reasons to which I’ll return.  For the moment, I’ll satisfy myself by pointing out that, tacitly, the proposals seem to be saying that the innocent are only innocent because they’ve not been found guilty… yet.  Give us time, and we’ll find something for which we can find them guilty, though.

(3) Public Protection.  This is the silliest of the lot.  For one thing – and I’m going to assume that public protection means crime prevention – a DNA database is only of any use on the presumption that crimes will be committed for which someone needs to be prosecuted.  That is to say: a DNA database would be at its most useful precisely when crime prevention has demonstrably broken down.  So that particular defence is incoherent.

The other option is that the assumption is that the likelihood of offending is inversely proportional to the expected likelihood of detection.  That seems to be dubious, and distasteful.  It’s dubious because most crime is not “rational”: it’s a spur-of-the-moment thing.  Pub brawls and burglaries just aren’t carried out on the basis of an assessment of the risk of getting caught; and, if they were, it’d be by people who thought that they had a reasonable chance of getting away with it.  Meanwhile, terrorists – and everyone really does have to bleat on about terrorists, don’t they? – are unlikely to be bothered by worries about detection.  The politically violent might very well welcome prosecution, since it gives them and their cause publicity; alternatively – as in the case of recent religious terrorism – they don’t care about prosecution because they don’t really plan to survive.  (Granted, terrorism often brings other crime – but that takes us back to the non-terroristic points I made.)

Besides: what kind of protection is this?  A world in which noone dares break the law out of fear of detection is a world in which people are unlikely to dare to do very much at all.  Secure it may be, but so is a Panopticon.  That noone has anything to fear unless they have anything to hide is simply wrong.  The fact that you’re under scrutiny is, in itself, a reasonable cause for alarm.  If it’s true that those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear, then it should be OK for me to put a CCTV camera in your bathroom.  I’m assuming that you don’t do anything particularly shameful in there.  If you want to say that I oughtn’t because you have a right to privacy… well, gotcha.  The same applies here.  Even if you’ve not committed a crime, and don’t plan to, the mere fact that there’s a database with you on it is the sort of thing that reasonable people might well legitimately fear without thereby losing their rationality.

The other aspect of keeping arrestees’ DNA is that, while some people are justly arrested even though they’re innocent – they might be reasonable suspects – others aren’t.  Just last night, there was a programme on Radio 4 that featured an interview with someone who’d been at a climate change camp, and had been arrested under terrorism legislation on the basis that a document she was carrying might be of use to terrorists.  In fact, it was a recipe for ice-cream.  (You can listen again until the 14th May – skip ahead to 14:40 and the couple of minutes after that.)  Admittedly, the ice-cream sounds disgusting… but all the same.  That’d be 12 years’ of DNA retention for a non-crime under current proposals.


I’m not sure how to end this post – it’s gone on long enough.  But the idea that anyone who’s been arrested in England and Wales is liable to have their genetic data stored for six or twelve years seems to me to be deeply problematic.  It’s either indefensible because it’s morally repellent, or indefensible because it’s incoherent.  So: which is it?  On which horn of the dilemma shall we impale Jacqui Smith,  Vernon Coaker, and the rest?  None-too-nice or none-too-bright?

Ach: sod it.  I feel a poll coming on:

DNA database policy

Mini poll bar

Mini poll bar

Mini poll bar

Mini poll bar


UPDATE, 10.v.09: Denny, at Liberal Conspiracy, makes largely the same case, and provokes this rather wonderful response from Lee Griffin.

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