UK Liberty

Ignorance or mendacity?

Posted in database state, DNA database, ID Cards, law and order, politicians on liberty, propaganda by ukliberty on December 8, 2009

(hat-tip Andrew Watson)

Today the Government published its response to the report commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust on the Database State.

I’m reading the response and will update this post as I wade through it.

So far it can be summed up as “The Government doesn’t do anything wrong.”

e-Borders

I have that familiar but confusing sensation of being simultaneously amused and slightly frustrated.

Their comments on the effectiveness of the DNA database and eBorders are cases in point: there are no stats relating to convictions but examples of individual cases are, as usual, held up as proof that these are worthwhile, necessary and proportionate systems to have.

Example:

The ‘Database State’ report suggested that there was ‘little evidence of effectiveness’ of UKBA systems. However, the following case studies illustrate some of the benefits of e-Borders and outline some of the different ways the data can be used: [synopsis of three cases]

That’s it! There is nothing else offered to refute the claim that there is “little evidence of effectiveness”. Nothing. Possibly because there is little evidence of effectiveness.

[update]

ID cards

The [Database State] report also noted ‘the growing public opposition to ID cards’ as part of the explanation for a red rating but there was no reference to support this suggestion – the majority of public opinion polls over the past five years have shown that the majority of people support identity cards and recent research has shown a consistent level of support for the National Identity Scheme of around 60%.

OK, it appears to be a bit remiss of the authors of Database State not to substantiate their claim here. But it seems to me any follower of the polls would, if he is honest, suggest there does indeed appear to be growing opposition to and declining support for ID cards.

Plot, for example, the results made available in table form by Polling Report:

What I hope you can see (and I’m sorry if it isn’t clear enough, do let me know) is that I’ve plotted the results of the polls over time for TNS/Home Office polls.  Looking at a particular poll result over time – the result for ‘support ID cards’, for example.  This is the pink line, to which I have added a dotted red line to show the linear trend.  It is clearly in decline over time.  Look too at the cyan (light blue) line, which represents the Home Office poll’s result for ‘oppose ID cards’. The dotted turquoise line represents the linear trend.  Opposition is clearly growing over time. And remember, this is the Home Office’s own poll.

And have a look at the TNS report from June 2009:

Support for the service has decreased this wave, with only 56% agreeing strongly or slightly with the plan. This continues the general downtrend in levels of support over time.

The results for ICM/NO2ID polls tell a similar story: decline in support, growth in opposition.

(Note: the ballpark percentages for and against differ between the polls because of the different methodology – there is a much closer gap in the ICM/NO2ID results.  Also, I haven’t plotted ‘don’t know’ or ‘undecided’)

Incidentally, TNS/Home Office changed the methodology of their poll since (and including) their February poll.  They inserted this new question:

Q.1a How concerned or worried are you about protecting yourself against identity theft?

Before this question:

Q.1 Are you aware of the Government introducing a national identity scheme, which includes the Identity Card?

This could explain the jump in support (regardless, support remains in decline).

Hang on

Posted in control freakery, database state, DNA database, stupid, surveillance society by ukliberty on November 30, 2009

Sean O’Neill, Crime and Security Editor of the Times:

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:

  1. 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,
  2. 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.

DNA Database

Posted in DNA database, law and order, politicians on liberty, relates to ordinary people by ukliberty on November 28, 2009

from the 19th november.

How convenient:

Lord Lester of Herne Hill (Liberal Democrat)

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to legislate to abide by the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights of 4 December 2008 in S and Marper v United Kingdom so as to end the practice of holding DNA samples of individuals who are arrested but later acquitted or have the charges against them dropped; and, if so, whether they will ensure that the practice is ended and legislation enacted during the present Parliament.

Lord West of Spithead (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Security and Counter-terrorism), Home Office; Labour)

We will bring forward proposals to change domestic law in response to the judgment as soon as parliamentary time allows.

… given that the governing party sets the Parliamentary timetable.

And, given that it is a matter of policy, not law, as to the samples that are taken and for how long, this is a bit of a red herring – in other words, the police aren’t obliged by law to take samples, the law simply gives them the power to do so, and policy changes do not require changes in domestic law.

Human Genetics Commission criticises National DNA Database

The Register:

The Human Genetics Commission (HGC) is the Government’s group of independent advisers on developments in human genetics: it is hoped that its “nuanced” critique of government policy will avoid a repetition of the Nutt affair and the Home Secretary will not, on this occasion, go so far as to sack his experts for providing advice that is out of step with his own views.

The HGC report, Nothing to hide, nothing to fear, concludes that although Britain has the largest police DNA database in the world – five million strong and still growing – this has been developed piecemeal without a specific Act of Parliament. The database needs to be regulated on a clear statutory basis and supervised by an independent authority.


On retired police officer told the researchers that in contrast to practices in his early career, it was now “the norm” to arrest people for “everything there is a power to do so” in part to expand the database.

“It is apparently understood by serving police officers that one of the reasons, if not the reason, for the change in practice is so that the DNA of the offender can be obtained: samples can be obtained after arrest but not if there is a report for summons. It matters not, of course, whether the arrest leads to no action, a caution or a charge, because the DNA is kept on the database anyway,” the ex-copper said.

The report further concludes that:

– There is insufficient evidence at present to be able to say what use it is to hold DNA profiles from different people

– There needs to be very careful consideration of the equality impact of the database and any proposed changes to it

– There needs to be a clear and independent appeals procedure for unconvicted people who want their DNA removed

The Government of course dismisses all criticism.

“We know that the DNA database is a vital crime fighting tool, identifying 410,589 crime scenes between 1998 and March 2009 with a DNA match and a possible lead on the possible identity of the offender.”

Which gives us no information on what proportion of those matches turned out to be of any use, exactly (one of) the point the HGC made.

DNA database FAIL

Posted in DNA database, rule of law, stupid by ukliberty on October 29, 2009

The Register:

The estimated number of people whose DNA profile is stored by the government has broken the five million mark for the first time.

The untrammelled growth of the world’s largest repository of human DNA information on a per capita basis has continued, despite the government’s defeat at the European Court of Human Rights last December.

last week, an official report showed that despite the growth of the database, detections based on DNA evidence have fallen.