Thursday, 14 May 2009

ID and DNA

It's not difficult to form an opinion about the proposal to introduce a universal ID card: reflecting on the enormous cost, the likelihood that, like most government projects involving advanced technology, it will be badly thought out and incompetently implemented, the probability that it will not serve much purpose, the possibility of misuse and the fact that our present government is greatly in favour of it, all help to lead to a definite conclusion.

It is not so easy to know what to think about the retention of DNA records. This is illustrated by the headlines of two articles which appeared in the same newspaper earlier in the month:

Dear Jacqui, please keep my DNA for as long as you like


Innocent will be sentenced to 12 years on the DNA database

In the first, the writer says he cannot see how a universal DNA database could limit his liberties or freedom, notes that there have never been any miscarriages of justice due to the presentation of DNA evidence, while there have been many—and there will be an increasing number—of injustices corrected by it, and that it is hard to imagine how anyone could be harmed by it. He asks what indignity is visited upon those whose DNA profile is kept on a database and points out that we surrender many pieces of information in order to make ourselves safer: we cannot get a passport without providing many personal details far more intimate than that.

These seem to me to be compelling arguments; the second article, and others in similar vein, have nothing much with which to counter them except the slippery-slope, the affront to our dignity, "No More State Intrusion" and so on, none of which are applicable in this context. This is harmless information with a potentially immense power to do good. There are real battles to be fought about our rights, about being innocent until proved guilty, against more state interference in our lives, but this is not one of them.

Provided, of course, that there is no discrimination, and that everyone's DNA profile is logged; then there would be no threat to the principle of the presumption of innocence.

So ID cards NO, universal DNA database probably YES. Unsurprisingly, the compromise now being proposed by the government will no doubt provide the worst of all possible solutions and please nobody.


Grumio said...

I think there is a fundamental difference between information about ourselves that we understand (name, address, date of birth etc.) and are therefore capable of making reasonable assumptions about its use and the risks associated therewith and information which can only be decoded, understood and used with very specialist knowledge available only or chiefly to government and which therefore we are not in a position to understand, use ourselves, control, change or follow. DNA falls into the latter category and therefore I do not think is something we should be handing over lightly or routinely to anyone. This is before one gets into matters of effectiveness of a monster database readable only by experts or into questions of dignity, effectiveness and reliability.

Sorry about the first sentence being inelegantly long.

Tony said...

Long but not especially inelegant, Grumio.

I don't want to decode, understand, use, control, change or follow my DNA information, any more than I want to do any of these things with my Social Security Number. And I feel that my dignity is not so fragile that I need regard having my profile recorded as an assault upon it.

As for effectiveness and reliability, the whole concept of DNA matching seems to have been very salutary up to now without anything nasty happening to anyone. While adding millions to the database might lead to an occasional error I feel that it will do much more good than harm.