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UK DNA Database Criticised by Report

November 24, 2009

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:

  1. that there should be a parliamentary debate about the recording of what it calls ‘unconvicted’ people;
  2. that because the purpose of the database has shifted over time, there should be constraints set out in new primary legislation;
  3. 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,
  4. 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.

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