Peter Hoskin

A debased database

A debased database
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As with much police work, the questions surrounding a DNA database come down to one thing: striking a balance between civil protection and civil liberties.  Going off a new report by the Human Genetics Commission, reported on the cover of today's Times, the government are getting that balance seriously wrong:

"Jonathan Montgomery, commission chairman, said that 'function creep' over the years had transformed a database of offenders into one of suspects. Almost one million innocent people are now on the DNA database...

...Professor Montgomery said there was some evidence that people were arrested to retain the DNA information even though they might not have been arrested in other circumstance.

He said that a retired senior police officer told the commission: 'It is now the norm to arrest offenders for everything if there is a power to do so. It is apparently understood by serving police officers that one of the reasons . . . is so that DNA can be obtained.' He said that the tradition of only arresting someone when dealing with serious offences had collapsed." When similar stories have emerged in the past, the official reponse is to stress that the retention of innocent people's DNA could help solve future crimes, as well as dissuading potential criminals from acting on their impulses.  But, instead, you worry about what this could mean for public attitudes towards the state, their public servants and each other.

In the end, I suspect the Tory pledge not to store the DNA of innocent people, unless they were investigated for a serious sexual, violent or terrorist offence, will pick up a good deal of support.