London Review Blog (hat-tip Andrew Watson):
Christmas, if you do it, is supposed to be about ‘good will toward men’. It’s from Luke 2, just before the angels appear and the shepherds head for the manger. Every year fair numbers of people manage a gesture that rises to the occasion. Still, in a humbug mood you can imagine the card that says ‘Tiny Tim’s still on crutches. Have a good one’ or ‘This Christmas I’ll be eating for higher sea levels’ or ‘We’ve introduced ID cards for foreign nationals. Season’s Greetings.’ Did I say imagine? Here’s the Christmas card the UK Border Agency has been sending out to, among others, lawyers and charities working with asylum seekers and refugees. Run your eye up and down the pretty tree to find ‘controlling the flow of migration’ or ‘biometric fingerprinting for visa applicants’ etc (you can click on it for a larger image).
Forget Google’s Street View – Transport for London is the new black when it comes to privacy-busting surveillance black ops, if this live traffic camera image captured yesterday is anything to go by:
We’re not quite sure what’s going on here and how it affects the flow of traffic to and from Twickenham Bridge, but we reckon it might be a bit of this…
A new dialogue on data
We need a rational, respectful discourse if we are to properly consider the benefits and flaws of using databases. …
… the increasing sophistication of data management has sparked concern about data protection and civil liberties, most acutely over the measures government takes to protect its citizens. This tension is serious, complex and inescapable. In modern democracies it will always be hard to strike the right balance between protecting the public from the threat posed by crime and terrorism and the need to protect civil liberties.
Reconciling the goods of liberty and security and opportunity, which all speak different languages, is never easy. The only way that it can be done is through rational and mutually respectful discourse, wary of anyone, on any side of the debate, who claims a monopoly of wisdom.
But that’s what the Government does, isn’t it? Claims a monopoly of wisdom, I mean.
Unless people agree with the Government, in which case those people are wise too…
The basic principles for using personal data are that it should be proportionate and necessary. That goes for debate about it too.
Sadly, such a rational, respectful discourse, so essential to the creation of public policy on this crucial issue, has been largely absent in recent years.
Government must take its share of the blame. Too often, we have been overly defensive and dismissive of criticism.
Rather understating it, seeing as Government Ministers have smeared and traduced their critics and called them “intellectual pygmies“, among other things.
But equally, opponents have been too quick to assume the worst of government, without any evidence to support their assumptions, replacing argument with rhetoric.
The Rowntree report, Database State, exemplifies this flawed discourse. Riddled with factual errors and misunderstandings, it reached conclusions without setting out the evidential base for doing so. The government has now published its response.
… We can never be complacent about databases – the challenge in getting the balance right between seizing the opportunities they offer and avoiding the risks they pose is evolving as fast as the technologies themselves. Whenever changes need to be made, we will make them. But we can only do this on the basis of a rational dialogue between all concerned.
Government Ministers aren’t interested in dialogue, nor are they interested in supporting their assertions with evidence.
They continue to waste our time and our money on half-baked, unsupported, proposals, and post hoc insincere apologies and justifications.
This is not “rational and mutually respectful discourse”, this is treating the world as a write-only medium and our money as their largesse.
If the civil libertarians, the conspiracy theorists and the Conservatives had their way, Abdul Azad would probably never have been caught. Azad was convicted of a brutal stranger rape in Stafford in July 2005 after fragments of his skin were recovered from under his victim’s fingernails and yielded a DNA profile matching his record on the national database.
This is an example of ‘marketing’ the database by drawing attention to a terrible crime they claim to have solved by using it.
But critics of DNA retention, the latest being the Human Genetics Commission, would not want Azad’s profile to be on the database to provide the crucial match. His DNA had been taken five months before the rape, when he was arrested and gave a DNA sample after police were called to a violent incident at his home in Birmingham.
Azad was, however, released without being charged. Under the current British rules his DNA was retained on the database and provided the crucial piece of evidence that would convict him of rape months later.
Under the DNA rules that exist in other countries and which opponents of the database want replicated here, however, Azad’s profile would have been expunged when he was released without charge for the domestic violence incident.
The investigating officer in Azad’s case had no doubt of the value of retaining this innocent man’s DNA. “We would never have caught him had his DNA not already been on the database,” he said. “He didn’t even live locally so we had no intelligence leads either.” …
OK so it’s helped with catching one man – great. What harms has it caused? What risks are associated with the DNA database?
O’Neill neglects to say.
See, the difference between O’Neill and me is that I’m prepared to weigh up the benefits and the costs and change my mind. But there has been no such weighing up in government.
As Nigel Hawkes of Straight Statistics put it,
The Home Office plans to retain [DNA] profiles for six years, but has so far failed to produce persuasive evidence that doing so is justified by any increases it will bring in the clear-up rate. Why not? The information is available. It simply needs independent analysis.
Or as NO2ID put it,
That DNA is involved in the detection of less than 0.5% of all recorded crime suggests that it is far from cost-effective. In order to make a judgement about cost-effectiveness, the public must be told exactly how much is being spent on DNA collection, processing, matching and retention. Until these figures are regularly published and properly audited, there is no way to determine cost effectiveness.
Or as GeneWatch put it,
…although there are limitations to current evidence, it is already sufficient to demonstrate that current policy and legislation is disproportionate to the need to tackle crime, because the recent massive expansion in the size of the DNA Database has failed to increase the proportion of crimes detected using DNA.
And as the Nuffield Council on Bioethics said,
Statistics about ‘matches’ to unconvicted people on the Database do not tell us whether these cases actually resulted in a conviction, or whether DNA evidence was essential to the case
Which is why Mark Craik, Chief Constable, Northumbria Police, was a bit silly to send his letter* to the Times:
When the issue is so important, surely it behoves the technical advisers, be they police or scientists, to stick with the evidence and facts.
Because the police and government haven’t stuck to the evidence and facts.
Back to O’Neill:
The same voices that sow alarm over DNA also complain loudly about the spread of the “surveillance society”. They fret about the rising number of CCTV cameras, quoting the guesstimate of 4.2 million cameras as fact. [it's true that is a guesstimate]
And they stoke up fear over proposals to create a central log of mobile phone and e-mail traffic, something that law enforcement refers to as the intercept modernisation programme [IMP] but which has become better known as the “Big Brother database”.
What fear is being stoked up, aside from the fear of O’Neill et al that rapists will be free to rape if we are more thoughtful about when and where such technology should be used?
It seems to me that critics are merely reminding everyone to consider the risks associated with such things.
These battles being fought (and won) under the banner of liberty and privacy threaten to have serious consequences in terms of the ability of the police to investigate serious crime. If we curtail the use of DNA, slash the number of CCTV cameras and abandon the collation of phone and e-mail records then we are asking detectives to try to catch the most dangerous criminals with one hand tied behind their backs. ….
I could argue from the extreme: surely we should have a camera in every room of every home and electronically tag every person? No? But rapists will be free to rape if we don’t!
Finally there is the issue of logging phone calls and e-mails. Anyone who has sat in a Crown Court recently will be familiar with the evidential value of phone logs — massive spreadsheets drawn up to show the patterns of connection and communication between defendants accused of murder, terrorism, people trafficking, drug smuggling, kidnap and armed robbery.
Would police investigating the child abuse at Little Ted’s nursery in Plymouth have been able to trace the links between Vanessa George, Angela Allen and Colin Blanchard without access to records of her phone and computer activity?
It seems dishonest of O’Neill to conflate such targetted surveillance with mass surveillance (e.g. the IMP).
The proposed Big Brother database is a way of centrally organising information to which the police already have access but which is currently held by Vodafone, Yahoo! and others. Yet we seem to mind less about personal detail held by the private sector.
In fact people are concerned about data held by the private sector but it is dishonest to point to its nature as being the same as that held by the public sector: for one thing, private sector data is usually of a voluntary kind; for another, there are strict rules about its collection and retention that the public sector is not equally subject to.
We should, of course, be wary of the authoritarian tendency to extend draconian powers of surveillance or asset seizure from the police to local councils, quangos and other ill-equipped bodies. But to tell detectives investigating murder, rape, kidnap and other crimes of violence that they cannot harness the full power of DNA, CCTV or phone-tracing is senseless.
A false dichotomy: no-one is suggesting that detectives cannot use such things.
Far from sleepwalking into a surveillance society, we are marching, mad-eyed and paranoid, into a situation where those who would seek to protect us from the most dangerous criminals would be denied the ability to do so.
That’s really quite bizarre:
- We already live in a surveillance society (it is now a matter of degree or extent, i.e. I can’t say we are as badly off as the East Germans); and,
- It’s O’Neill and other supporters of the government’s idiot schemes who have been stoking fear about rapists and terrorists running amok if the police aren’t allowed to use the DNA database (which of course no-one has suggested).
* Incidentally, this bit from Craik’s letter is flawed both in its reasoning and its grasp of the facts:
The report does not seem to recognise that police collate and record only what it is currently lawful to collate and record. As ever, we act only according to the law as it currently stands.
In reasoning, because it is important that the police do what is right, as well as what is lawful: if it is lawful to shoot someone for stealing a pack of chewing gum, we wouldn’t say a police officer who did so was behaving appropriately, reasonably, or proportionately.
In fact, because the police themselves do break the law from time to time. In relation to DNA samples, I wrote last year that,
until s82 Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 came into effect, retention of fingerprint and sample evidence was unlawful (under s64(3) Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984), yet the police retained the evidence. I make no claim about the merits or otherwise of the retention of such evidence (it has certainly proved useful but its proportionality is disputed) – what I think is interesting is the assumption that neither the government nor the police would ever do anything unlawful, and not something found unlawful after the fact (e.g. after a court case) but something plainly unlawful according to the very clear law at the time.
And since then of course we had the European Court of Human Rights rule in S & Marper that blanket and indefinite detention of samples is unlawful. Nevertheless the police continue to do it – yes, that’s right, they continue to do this unlawful activity.
Seriously, for Craik to claim that “as ever we act only according to the law as it currently stands”… well, it’s dishonest and/or ignorant, to put it mildly, and as Chief Constable he ought to know better.