Wednesday, November 11, 2009 

The DNA database fudge.

One of the motifs of the past few months has been that politicians of all colours "just don't get it". Ironically, when it comes to the continuing debacle over the DNA database, you rather imagine that they did get it and now they're utterly bewildered at how things have turned out. Here, after all, is what ought to be a standard tabloid outrage scandal: because of the "unaccountable" European Court of Human Rights, the government is having to change its policy on keeping all the DNA profiles of those arrested but not charged indefinitely, potentially raising the spectre of the guilty getting away with their crimes. The Sun, that flag-bearer of social authoritarianism, did originally raise its voice, but has since barely made a peep about the S and Marper case and its implications.

For a government that has so often treated with contempt the concerns of civil libertarians, with the full connivance of the vast majority of the tabloid press, the Daily Mail only recently deciding that it's time to join the other side, it must be wondering where all those who believe if they've got nothing to hide they've got nothing to fear have disappeared to. As it happens, the majority are still probably on the side of mass DNA retention, just as they were on the side of extending the detention limit for terrorist suspects, even if the numbers fell away once the full implications of 42 or 90 days were properly explained.

It is therefore encouraging, that just this once, it's the other side making all the noise. On the one hand, you do have to recognise that if the government were to implement the the S and Marper ruling to the letter and destroy the DNA profiles of those not charged and found not guilty, on the very first occasion that someone then went onto commit a far graver offence and as a result was not brought to justice immediately, you can bet that those who are currently quiet would be screaming blue murder. A more confident, and indeed, more liberal government, would however make the argument that we cannot create a completely secure society without making the kind of sacrifices that would reduce the amount of freedom which each and every one of us currently enjoys. As it is however, we instead have a government that is terrified both of the power of the press in one of its "fits of morality" and which knows that such woolly-thinking is hardly a vote-winner. Even so, keeping an innocent person's profile for 6 years is completely unjustifiable, and quite clearly breaches the S and Marper ruling. The main hope from ministers has to be that by the time any challenge to it winds its way through the courts again, they'll ever not be in the same job, or they won't even be in government. The Conservatives are promising to emulate the more enlightened Scottish system, but again, whether it will be one of their first priorities is unclear.

The overall result though is classically New Labour. They would like to go further, without being able to, while also privately doubtless wishing they could do the exact opposite. Such are the constrains by which we have been governed, and likely will continue to be under Cameron's "new" Tories.

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Thursday, May 07, 2009 

A profile of an contempible government.

For a decision made by the European Court of Human Rights, which the tabloids habitually love to portray as a foreign entity imposing liberal madness on this unspoilt land despite our leading role in its establishment, there was surprisingly little apoplexy at the judgement concerning the retention of genetic profiles on the DNA database, especially considering the Sun had scaremongered about the case on a couple of occasions. Partly this was due to being distracted at the time, as Karen Matthews had just been convicted, but also partially down to a gradual changing of views on the general question of civil liberties. After more than a decade where the belief that if you had nothing to hide you had nothing to fear became so entrenched that almost anything, with the exception of the death penalty, was considered as a potential policy to deal with the hysteria over crime, even as crime itself fell off a cliff, sanity has finally begun to make something of a return.

Sanity however is not something that comes naturally to the Home Office under Labour. Despite the hilarious complaints from the Sun, and indeed from Jack Straw that "the criminal justice lobby" have the ear of ministers more than newspaper editors do, the facts, not least a prison population which requires an early release system which actively undermines justice but without which they could not even begin to function, speak for themselves. Admittedly, the DNA database makes for an easy populist cause: while few will still openly call for a "complete" database, the idea that everyone convicted of a crime should be on it indefinitely is still a difficult position to argue against, even if it is as illogical a position as arguing for a full one. At least on one point the government does seem to be willing to be reasonable, or something approaching it: those over 10 and under 18 will have their profiles removed, regardless of whether they are convicted of a crime or not, unless for a violent or sexual offence, when they turn 18, as long as they are not arrested again during their teenage years. Youthful indiscretions it seems will not matter for life as they currently do.

If however being convicted of any offence that carries a potential prison sentence means that your profile should remain on the database indefinitely is indefensible, as the government proposes despite the ECHR's damning verdict, then the idea that those found completely innocent should remain on the database for either 6 or 12 years, depending on the gravity of the offence, is bordering on a complete mockery of justice. While everyone has become acquainted with the example of Mark Dixie, who was convicted of the murder of the photogenic Sally Anne Bowman (who we most likely would never had heard of had she looked more like Susan Boyle), after he was arrested for being involved in a minor scuffle outside a pub, it isn't really an apposite example in this instance because no one is arguing that profiles should not be created from all those arrested and checked against unsolved cases as a matter of course; he would have been caught red-handed regardless. The "consultation" document (PDF)does however contain a more troubling one for those of us who believe those found innocent of what they are accused of should instantly have their profiles removed from the database: Kensley Larrier was arrested in 2002 on suspicion of possessing an offensive weapon and had his profile taken and loaded onto the database, but no charges were brought. Three years later Larrier was successfully convicted of rape after his DNA was matched with that left at the crime scene.

It doesn't necessarily mean of course that Larrier would not have been convicted through good old fashioned police work, and the suspicions of the police confirmed once they had arrested him, but it does leave those of us advocating a complete wiping of the profiles of the innocent from the database with the uncomfortable position of knowing that undoubtedly some will get away with subsequent crimes, including the most serious, which they would otherwise have been brought to book for, or at least brought to justice for far sooner than otherwise. The key argument to make in response is that a few "bad eggs" should not mean that all those unfortunate to come under suspicion should be considered potentially guilty until proven innocent, but even that is far from being wholly convincing. Even if we then point out that no system is infallible, and that unless we are prepared to go down the previously mentioned path of everyone being on the database, some would still always escape justice, it still leaves us open to the accusation that we're prepared to put principles, however noble, before the rights of those to have justice seen to be done.

More indicative though of how the government seems determined to still eventually build such a complete database by stealth, is that all those given just a caution, a warning, or a reprimand will also have their profiles kept indefinitely. The number of cautions given in recent years has sky-rocketed, although it's not clear whether this is due to the huge rise in new offences created by this government, the fact that any offence, however minor, is now also an arrestable offence, or an increasing tendency for "summary justice" rather than court proceedings to deal with those minor offences, but it effectively means that only those officially found to be guilty of no offence whatsoever, which is also increasingly rare, will have their profiles removed.

The government claims that its proposals will not just mean that it will comply with the ruling in the S and Marper case, but that they will go substantially further than the requirements. Whether the court will agree may well depend on a further case being brought, but considering the time it will take for it wind its way first through our court system, where S and Marper failed in their attempts, and to the ECHR to consider again, it will doubtless be years before we find out. Certainly there needs to be a challenge, not just to the 6 and 12 years retention for those found completely innocent, but to the blanket retention of those given just a caution, let alone those convicted and given either a fine or a suspended sentence. Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats talk a good game on doing the right thing, but whether the former can be trusted to keep their word, the LDs hardly likely to be in a position to put theirs into action, remains to be seen. In any event, the government has as usual done as little as it feasibly could to not be held in further contempt. It ought to be another thing for which it should be held to account, but even if the mood is slowly changing, there are few votes in giving in to those barmy Europeans.

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Thursday, December 04, 2008 

The European Court of Human Rights rides to the rescue, again.

It's indicative of how disjointed the debate in this country often is on crime and punishment that it's taken the European Court of Human Rights to tell us that the retention of the fingerprints, cellular samples and DNA profiles of those never charged or convicted of any crime is not just unwarranted and untenable but also immoral. The House of Lords, which usually acquits itself fairly well on such matters, rejected the appeal by the two men from Sheffield with little of its usual flair or insight. The ECHR's unanimous decision by 17 judges that the policy breaches Article 8 of our own HRA could hardly be more authoritative.

The difficulty with the keeping of such profiles has always been that no one argues with the potential that the DNA database has for solving crimes where justice has previously not been done. The case of Mark Dixie, to mention just one example, who was arrested after a disturbance in a pub and had his saliva and fingerprints taken as a result, led to his being convicted of the murder of Sally Anne Bowman, a case which might have otherwise remained in limbo. There is still more than justification, I feel, for all those arrested to provide samples which can then be checked against unsolved crimes. The question is what, if there are then no matches, should be done if no charges are brought or after a certain length of time has elapsed with the person not re-offending.

The review which the Home Office is having to set-up to provide an answer to the court, due to report back in March, might well begin to provide some answers. It ought, for example, to be fairly easy to remove the data of those who are either not charged or who are subsequently found not guilty from the database once the full facts become known, just as information from those under 16 ought to be dealt with in an entirely different matter. Yet as Afua Hirsch writes, the database and systems used are disparate and confused, where it can be impossible to learn whether simple requests for the destruction of the material held have actually been met. Likewise, with the information that is apparently held on the database, it ought to now be fairly easy to contact those who have their information held who have never been charged or subsequently acquitted and ask them whether they wish for it to be destroyed, or whether they have no problems with it being kept. Again, with the general incompetence that this government has involving both databases and the retention of information, it's impossible to imagine this happening.

Like with the way it has conducted itself on many other issues involving civil liberties, the government and the police have wanted to create an almost all encompassing database by relative stealth. The only individuals, for instance, to have advocated a full database of everyone's details have either been victims of crime or certain honest individual senior police officers and judges. The change to taking samples from everyone, whether they were charged or not, was the way of getting around a huge row which the government wasn't going to be about to have. This compromise kept everyone apart from Liberty and the Henry Porters of this world relatively happy, until they themselves had the misfortune to be arrested or come into contact with the police and they themselves were subject to the data harvesting, which we are informed even Damian Green underwent.

Recent developments in any event ought to have knocked the idea of the all encompassing database on the head: techniques are now used to match DNA to relatives rather than individuals, and with 33% of those under 35 having a criminal record outside of motoring offences, it's only a matter of time before such a database will have coverage of 80 to 100% of the population. Even less reason then for every innocent individual to have their personal samples stored.

If the government was anywhere near where it ought to be on such matters, it could adopt Germany's current model on the holding of samples: samples are destroyed if they are no longer required for criminal proceedings, those on the database are reappraised every 10 years to see if they are still relevant, and only federal state investigators rather than ordinary police forces have access. Instead, if the government decides not to try to legislate its way out its mess, and even that would be subject to challenge, it will probably grudgingly try to implement the more haphazard approach identified above. All we have to look forward to now are the screams from the Sun of unelected European judges interfering with our laws, yet again...

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008 

Security and liberty can be protected - but only if you're stuck inside Gordon Brown's head.

It all now seems such a long time ago, but back in October of last year Gordon Brown made a rather good and generally well-received speech on liberty. Refreshing because of the gaping difference between his apparent favoured approach and that of his predecessor and tabloid pleasing ministers, he set out a narrative in the first half from the Magna Carta to the Human Rights Act, incorporating quotes along the way from such figures as Bolingbroke, Voltaire, de Tocqueville, Orwell, Himmelfarb, Stuart Mill, T. H. Green and Hobson. Never could you have imagined Blair giving such a speech; for him, history was something to be made rather than learned from, and his most infamous and likely to be remembered effort is the speech in which he condemned the values of the 1960s for bringing us to where we are today. The second half where Brown attempted to defend policies bequeathed to him by that man was far less convincing, and it also made clear that he would have no truck with 42-day dissenters while also pretending that he welcomed a debate on it. My added comment is now perhaps worth restating simply because of how wrong I got it in hindsight:

In contrast to my usual dismeanour, I'm optimistic that Brown does mean the majority of what he said in this speech. It doesn't go far enough, obviously, but to pour opprobrium over him as so many over at CiF already have, especially when authoritarians over other matters like David Davis are raising their highly hypocritical heads is to abandon any hope that something might just improve from the Blair days.

With that mea culpa, we're brought back to the present day. Anyone would have thought that the authoritarian David Davis has well and truly put the wind up not just his own party, but the government also. It's unclear whether Brown's speech today to the Institute for Public Policy Research was planned in advance or whether he changed his topic as a result of last week's developments, but that Brown in it covers all the issues on which Davis has said he wishes to fight the government seems more than just a convenient coincidence. Perhaps this is to be the Labour response: not prepared to dignify Davis's "stunt" with an actual candidate, this is to be their submission to Davis's challenge of a debate on civil liberties.

If so, it shows just how paper thin, hollow, patronising and running scared the government is. Up until now, it hasn't been so directly and so significantly challenged over the casual dilution of civil liberties, mainly because the removal has been so stealthily achieved and smoothed over by the popular press in favour of the constant cracking down on crime. Whatever some of those now challenging and cynical of Davis's motives are saying, it can't be denied that his stand has forced at the least a reappraisal and a justification from the government of all that is doing.

From the very beginning, the tone is wrong. Just examine this, the second full sentence:

The modern security challenge is defined by new and unprecedented threats: terrorism; global organised crime; organised drug trafficking and people trafficking. This is the new world in which government must work out how it best discharges its duty to protect people.

But none of these threats are new, and none of them are unprecedented. Brown now seems prepared to pay the same haughty disregard for history as his despised predecessor: terrorism has been with us for hundreds of years (Guy Fawkes, the nihilists, etc etc), and while organised crime has only fairly recently became global in scale, organised crime is nothing new; nor is organised drug trafficking, as the Opium Wars testify, and people trafficking is much the same. This is not a new world, but it's handy to pretend it is so that the government can attempt to justify changes which otherwise would be considered both completely unnecessary and also detrimental to the rights of the "British people" as a whole.

It's this sort of dishonest rhetorical flourish which runs like a thread through the entire speech. Skipping a few hundred words of mostly platitudinous statements, we come upon this next one:

It could be said that for too long we have used nineteenth century means to solve twenty first century problems. Instead we must have twenty first century methods to deal with twenty first century challenges.

As if we hadn't already been using "twenty first century" methods. That isn't of course the implication; the actual implication is that the likes of Davis and other critics are standing in the way of or threatening these decent, progressive "twenty first century methods". The reality is that these "twenty first century" methods have been pushed through with little consultation, such as the establishment of the system which monitors the motorways and can be used to follow almost anyone as they travel across the country, or the huge numbers of CCTV cameras which have been put up with little or no debate over their actual efficacy in either solving or preventing crime.

Brown continues:

So I want to focus today on the use of modern technology in fighting crime and protecting our borders - and focus on the argument that new laws or new technologies threaten the rights of the individual.

Put it this way: while the old world was one where we could use only fingerprints, now we have the technology of DNA.

While the old world relied on the eyes of a policeman out on patrol, today we also have the back-up of CCTV.

While the old world used only photographs to identify people, now we have biometrics.

Of course all these new technologies raise new problems and I will discuss them today. But the answer is not to reject the new 21st century means of detecting and preventing crime - but to simultaneously adopt the new technologies where they can help - and to strengthen the protection of the individual:

· never subjecting the citizen to arbitrary treatment,

· always respecting basic rights and freedoms,

· and, wherever new action is needed, matching it with stronger safeguards and more transparency and scrutiny.

Again, it doesn't seem to matter to Brown's argument that all the technologies he mentions are twentieth century creations rather than twenty-first century ones, but his point remains the same. The difficulty here is that the technologies have been adopted or are to be adopted, while the protection of the individual has been either completely ignored or only been thought of after protest. Brown's listing of where the citizen must be protected is laughable: the citizen already is subject to arbitrary treatment, as we have seen with the recent terror laws on a number of separate occasions, basic rights and freedoms, such as the freedom to protest in the heart of our democracy (on which more in a moment) have been taken away, with the freedom to protest itself under threat in some areas, while "new action" as Brown terms it has never been matched with strong enough safeguards or transparency, as 42 days has so recently demonstrated.

From here, it's little surprise that Brown quickly resorts to an ad-hominem, straw man argument dressed up in typically Brownian patriotic nonsense:

And there is, in my view, a British way of meeting this challenge. The British way cannot be a head-in-the-sand approach that ignores the fact that the world has changed with the advent of terrorism which aims for civilian casualties on a massive scale and which respects not only no law, but also no recognisable moral framework.

Have we got that then? All those opposed to 42 days are head-in-the-sanders, ignoring that the world has changed. It wasn't so long back that even the egregious Tony McNulty was trying to tell us that despite Blair's declaration after 7/7 that the "rules of the game are changing" the government had recognised that it had gone too far. This now seems to have been completely abandoned, and strangely, or not so strangely, just as the government has lost the argument but won the vote.

There's little point going over the 42 day arguments yet again, as Brown does, but there is this that is just pure fiction which is worth highlighting:

This is the driving force behind the proposals the Government is bringing forward - including the counter-terrorism provisions we asked Parliament to approve last week. And we don't suggest these changes to be tough or populist - but because we believe they are necessary.

Except that only a tiny band believe they are necessary, while those that don't include the director of public prosecutions, numerous former attorney generals and government legal advisers, and also even apparently the former head of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller. Tough and populist doesn't even begin to cover it. Similarly dishonest and to ignore not just the actions of the past few days but also years is this:

We must recognise that winning the battle of ideas means championing liberty. To say we should ignore the longstanding claims of liberty when faced with the urgent needs of security is tempting to some, but never to me - it would be to embark down an illiberal path that is as unacceptable to the British people as it is to me.

Where were you then Gordon when we imprisoned "foreign terror suspects" indefinitely without charge, only struck down by the law Lords? You didn't hesitate to battle Blair on other measures, but not on that. You've stood by while the control order regime, both illiberal and ineffective in equal measure has been established, while refusing to introduce the intercept evidence which might allow their cases to go to trial. The only thing that seems to have been unacceptable to you is the idea that you would never become prime minister.

Brown moves on:

Take the issue of identity - the second issue I want to discuss today. People's identity is precious and needs to be secure. But is a simple fact that the scale of identity fraud is increasing - that more people are facing distressing and disruptive attempts to steal their identity, and technology has made it far easier for people to perpetuate that fraud. But new technology offers us an opportunity to redress the balance. So one of the best examples of how we can confront the modern criminal while respecting liberties is the use of biometrics, already planned to be introduced into passports across the world, but also offering us the opportunity to protect individuals' identities in their everyday lives.

We know that as many as one in four criminals use false identities - and with terrorist suspects it is almost universal. One September 11th hijacker used 30 false identities to obtain credit cards and a quarter of a million dollars of debt. Many terrorist suspects arrested since 2001 have had large numbers of false identities. No one is suggesting that an identity card scheme will stop terrorist attacks overnight. But if it can make it harder for people not just to travel across borders with multiple identities, but also to raise money or rent safe houses or buy sensitive material - all anonymously - it can potentially disrupt the operations of terrorists and other criminals - something we must surely be making every effort to do.

Note that although Brown mentions a September the 11th hijacker he doesn't say anything about the Madrid bombers, all of whom had ID cards. This specific linking of terrorists with the ID card system is something Brown eschewed in his previous speech, precisely because they will do nothing whatsoever to prevent terrorism, as ministers know only too well. Terrorist use of false identities is almost always incidental in any case - the 7/7 bombers had details of who they were on them, as they wanted to be identified, as other martyrdom seekers do.

But as well as the contribution which I believe a biometric identity scheme can make to these national challenges, I believe it can also make a powerful contribution on an individual level to our personal security. Opponents of the identity card scheme like to suggest that its sole motivation is to enhance the power of the state - but in fact it starts from a recognition of the importance of something which is fundamental to the rights of the individual: the right to have your identity protected and secure. This is why, despite years of exaggeration about its costs and its implications for liberty, public support for it remains so strong.

It again matters little that the costs have not been exaggerated, as shown by the already staggering cost of the scheme, with the cost of an ID card likely to be in the region of £93, all for the privilege of proving who you are, or that the cards will quickly be open to forgery, as all other systems have been, what it comes down to is Brown and the government telling us it will make your identities more secure. Strangely, no one believes them.

People understand the value of secure identity. In banking, to protect their money, people were happy to move from signatures to PIN numbers. Increasingly they are moving to biometrics - for example, many people now have laptops activated by finger-scans.

Which completely misses the point that they themselves are the ones personally in control of that. With the ID card scheme, we are not, and we don't trust those who are.

But as with our proposals on terrorist legislation, we must match our efforts to improve our security with stronger safeguards on liberty. We have no plans for it to become compulsory for people to carry an ID card. We have made this clear in the legislation: that the identity card scheme will not be used to place new requirements on people, but, on those occasions in everyday life where people already have to carry ID - if they want to prove their age, or open a bank account, or apply for a job, or register with a GP - it will provide a better, more convenient and more secure way of doing it, not just relying on a couple of utility bills, and one which meets a national standard.

Yet more layers of bullshit. If the scheme is not to become compulsory, the government wouldn't be spending such a ridiculous amount on it, and it's incredibly likely to become so once they think it's reached critical mass, hence the wonderful idea to force it on public servants and students first, the kind of people who are both disliked and who can do very little about it in turn. It's also worth asking what the point of the huge database is behind the system if all this is going to be a simple, pleasant little user-friendly tool which will just help us prove who we are. We could set up a simple national standard scheme based on the smallest amount of information possible in a fraction of the time and cost. Instead we have a completely exorbitant scheme making use of the most information possible, with fines for those who eventually refuse to have one.

I welcome the report of the all-party Home Affairs Select Committee on 5 June, which - based not on knee-jerk reactions but a year of thorough and impartial research - firmly rejected the characterisation of Britain as a "Surveillance Society" - but warned at the same time against complacency, and called for both practical measures and principled commitments from the Government to ensure the balance of liberty and security is maintained.

Here we have yet more obfuscation and selective reading on the part of Brown. The report by the HASC in fact specifically warned that we were in danger of becoming a "surveillance society" and said that the ID card scheme was potentially one of the biggest threats of that becoming reality because of the possibility it could be used to routinely spy on the individual.

Having completely failed to even begin to make the case for ID cards, Brown moves on to CCTV:

From the IRA terrorist campaign in the 1990s and the Brixton nail bomber in 1999, to the terrorist incidents in London in July 2005, CCTV either used by the police or released to the public helped in the identification of suspects, and played an important role in the subsequent prosecutions. In central Newcastle, after CCTV was installed, burglaries fell by 56 per cent, criminal damage by 34 per cent, and theft by 11 per cent.

It is the clear benefits of CCTV in fighting crime - from terrorism down to anti-social behaviour - which have led to its increased use by the police and transport and local authorities - and also by shops and businesses. The role of Government however is not just to identify the opportunities for improving our security but, again, to match them with strong safeguards on our liberty and privacy. We absolutely accept the challenge set down by the Home Affairs Committee: that we must demonstrate that "any extension of the use of camera surveillance is justified by evidence of its effectiveness". And I can tell you today that in addition to the safeguards set out in our CCTV strategy in November we are happy to accept the Committee's recommendation that the Information Commissioner should produce an annual report on the state of surveillance in the UK for Parliamentary debate.

So let us not pretend that CCTV is intrinsically the enemy of liberty. Used correctly, with the right and proper safeguards, CCTV cuts crime, and makes people feel safer - in some cases, it actually helps give them back their liberty, the liberty to go about their everyday lives with reassurance.

Here Brown here makes no real case for CCTV having prevented crime. Yes, in certain cases it does a fine job in identifying those that have committed crimes, but as for prevention the case has simply not been made by anyone. It would be interesting to know when Newcastle introduced its CCTV scheme and whether this is any correlation with its installation, or whether the drop is simply because crime has fell substantially over the last 10 years, but Brown doesn't provide any background, only figures which are easily amenable. A police officer recently revealed that only 3% of street crime in London, a place completely covered with CCTV, is solved using cameras, and this is a point David Davis has directly made. Many of them simply don't provide high enough quality images to be used in prosecutions, making them useless while doing nothing to reassure anyone, with the opposite often being the case. CCTV may make some feel safer, but it's a false, irrational sense of safety which is quickly forgotten. It is a praiseworthy move that the information commissioner will produce a yearly report on the state of surveillance, but whether any suggestions the report makes will be listened to or properly debated is another matter.

Finally then, to the DNA database:

Through a series of careful changes we have made DNA one of the most effective tools in fighting crime. And we have worked with the police and also the Home Affairs Select Committee and others to ensure that proper safeguards are in place.

As a result, the National DNA Database has revolutionised the way the police protect the public. In the last full year for which figures have been made public, the DNA database matched suspects with over 40,000 crimes. That's over a hundred crimes a day which would be harder to solve, sometimes impossible, without the use of DNA - including 450 homicides, almost 650 rapes, over 200 other sex offences, almost 2,000 violent offences and over 8,500 burglaries.

Again, it's not clear whether in these cases the suspect's DNA was already on the database or whether when they were arrested it was taken and then subsequently matched in order to confirm the police's case against them. No one is going to dispute that the DNA database is an incredibly helpful tool to the police which has helped them solve numerous crimes, it's over what Brown next turns to where there is real concern:

I say to those who questioned the changes in the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001, which allowed DNA to be retained from all charged suspects even if not found guilty: if we had not made this change, 8,000 suspects who have been matched with crime scenes since 2001 would in all probability have got away, their DNA having been deleted from the database. This includes 114 murders, 55 attempted murders, 116 rapes, 68 other sexual offences, 119 aggravated burglaries, and 127 drugs offences.

And I say to those who opposed the proposals in the Criminal Justice Act 2003, to allow the police to take DNA samples not just from those charged, but from all those arrested for serious, recordable offences: again, if we had not made this change, there would be serious and dangerous criminals escaping justice and continuing to pose a threat to the public. It is simply not responsible government to let such opportunities to use new technologies to protect the public pass us by.

But again, we have matched these careful extensions in the use of DNA with the right safeguards: DNA can only be recorded for people arrested for a recordable offence; the use of that DNA has clear limits set down in legislation, by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act; and there are stringent limits on those who are able to access the information.

I don't think that anyone is now suggesting that data taken from those arrested should not at least be checked with the database to confirm that they are not a match for other serious offences, as this is after all how the likes of Mark Dixie have been convicted. Instead, there needs to be a compromise, where those who have been arrested but never charged with any crime have their data checked and if nothing comes up, then and only then should it be removed and destroyed. The problem is that we simply can't trust the police to do this, as previous cases where children who have been arrested for something completely trivial have shown, with police procrastinating and only finally destroying their fingerprints and DNA sample when parents went to the press and demanded it be done while they were present. More specifically the real concern is that the police and government are acquiring and attempting to create a representative database by stealth, and as ever more minute amounts of DNA are taken from crime scenes, the potential for miscarriages of justice increases greatly. The recent prosecution of Sean Hoey and the case of Shirley McKie are testament to this, and some might also point towards the minute amounts of samples taken from the fibres in the back of the McCann's hire car, directly leading to the lurid accusations against them also.

Brown is of course also being completely disengenuous: the police can now arrest anyone for almost any reason they can think of if they're so inclined, thanks to the final removal of any distinction over what an arrestable offence is and isn't. They're then perfectly within their rights to take your fingerprints and a DNA sample, and there's absolutely nothing you can do about it, whether you're charged with any crime or not. Seeing as the government has also then created somewhere in the region of 3,000 new offences which you can be charged with, there's plenty of room for manoeuvre.

We are now approaching the end, but Brown leaves one of the most astonishing and risible claims until now:

And it is a measure of the emphasis that we place on at all times advancing the liberties of the individual that we have in the past year done more to extend freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press and freedom of information. To summarise, we have given people new rights to protest outside Parliament

No you haven't - all you've done is given us our old right back! How typically New Labour to claim credit for something which they've first taken away, only to then give back. And that's not all:

We have removed barriers to investigative journalism

By removed barriers, Brown must mean "allowed tabloid scum to keep digging into celebrity lowlife and anyone ever accused of any crime" via private investigators and the very databases which Brown has just spent so much time eulogising while claiming to be secure!

It's this though that even defeats both of the above for being completely ridiculous and out-of-touch with reality:

And I agree with those who argue that the very freedoms we have built up over generations are the freedoms terrorists most want to destroy. And we must not - we will not - allow them to do so.

Except you've just admirably done their job for them. Why do they need to bother when the prime minister can hide behind technological developments and blatant scaremongering on how deadly the threat it is for further extending detention without charge and removing the very liberties they loathe?

If the prime minister so believes all of the above though, instead of just making a speech on it, why doesn't he and his party stand a candidate arguing all of the above against David Davis? If you're so sure of your case, and in some places it is more credible than in others, why not stand by your convictions? That Brown won't but that he will make a speech rather than enter into open debate suggests that he knows full well that he and the government would lose the argument, just as they did over 42 days even if they won the vote. Isn't this the prime minister that has so cornered the market in writing about courage? On civil liberties, Brown really can be accused of bottling it.

Related posts:
OurKingdom - Brown dumps UK's national security strategy
Rachel North - Scared New World
Lee Griffin - We must remove civil liberties to give you freedom

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Monday, January 14, 2008 

2 million migrant homes, knives and the DNA database.

It's Monday, it's the Express, it must mean it's time for a Diana "exclusive", a Madeleine non-story or a rant against immigrants. How about all three? You lucky, lucky people!

Before we get carried away, the main Express story is based entirely on a MigrationWatch report prepared for a parliamentary committee. Now, I could of course read the entire thing, dissect it and make my mind up about whether it's bollocks, or I could just dismiss it out of hand. After all, their last report, claiming that migrants contributed only 4 pence a week in benefit to the country was completely and utterly wrong. This latest one, which claims we'll have to build 2 million houses just for immigrant workers (not that we are, as the headline misleadingly implies), I'm willing to hazard is also complete and utter crap. I think we'll go with the latter.

On then, to the Sun. The scaremongering stories of today are "Girls age (sic) three hitting puberty", which is based off today's Tonight with Trevor McDonut, and relies on the stories of a whole two girls, while Al-Qaeda 'to blow up Paris' is more concerned about British tourists in the Scum's parochial way than the French, who you would think would be more in the line of fire.

The Sun's latest big "exclusive" is that it's wrangled an interview with Gordon Brown, which must mean his polls are down again. His main promise is a "huge crackdown on Britain's knife crime epidemic", which is the biggest surprise since the last one. As ever, rather than attempting to understand why everyone and their mother seems to carrying a knife, the immediate solution is that anyone caught carrying one must be prosecuted rather than simply cautioned. Seeing as there have previously been suggestions that those carrying knives should get an automatic prison sentence of around three years, and the figures accompanying the report state that 8,500 of those caught with knives only received a caution, the implication is that we're going to be sending to prison thousands of youngsters, if this is to be vigorously implemented. Considering we simply don't have the prison places to do that, and also that doing that it well be far worse than giving a caution would, introducing them to the world of criminality by way of the slamming of a cell door, you get the feeling that we won't be hearing much about this until the next time someone impossibly young gets stabbed. Added into the mix is Brown's laughable if they weren't sinister remarks about how he's worried about "video and computer games" and the other reflex, the banning of "hunting" knives if they don't have a "practical" use.

The Scum Says column is slightly sharper (ho ho) than usual today on the matter:

AT last, the knife crackdown The Sun has been calling for.

But why was it so long coming? And why isn’t it tougher?

Last year 9,000 thugs escaped with meaningless cautions for carrying a blade. Meanwhile dozens of kids died on our anarchic streets.

It doesn’t take a genius to link those two facts.

If anything, it suggests that whatever the punishment is meant to be, and remember that the whole of last year was given over to demands for ever tougher penalties for those carrying knives, it seems that the hardcore will pack them regardless. I don't see how anyone can change that just through threats, however harsh the sentence is.

So only the fear of punishment can deter people from bringing them on to the streets.

Which, as the PM rightly says, means prosecutions, not cautions.

What he should have promised was automatic jail terms — but he’s hamstrung by our prisons being full.

Is the Sun really suggesting that we imprison 9,000 people a year simply for carrying a knife? It might give a false sense of security, but then we're back to the problem once they're released of young, probably angrier men, embittered at their lot, possibly thrown into the cycle of crime for a long time to come. There has to be another answer - and whether that involves community work, mentoring, fines or other punishments, such as the delaying of driving licences if they're of below that age, there has to be a better one than imprisonment.

Is that also why this crackdown, while obviously welcome, is limited to 12 crime “hot-spots”?

No one needs to walk around with a blade any bigger than a penknife.

So ban them from being carried in public EVERYWHERE.

It’s not exactly “zero tolerance” otherwise, is it?

Err, it is illegal to walk around with a knife EVERYWHERE. Just that in those so-called "hot-spots" those caught won't be cautioned.

Moving on:

BRITAIN’S DNA database has grown into a vital weapon against criminals.

It holds the details of four million arrested people. Last year it solved 45,000 crimes, among them hundreds of rapes and murders.

Now it’s under threat from . . . guess who? Yes, the European Court of Human Rights. Its judges are ready to rule that our database be purged of the details of anyone not convicted after their arrest.

Hundreds of rapes and murders? Really? Would the Sun like to present some evidence to back up that claim? Dozens maybe, hundreds I don't believe for a second.

Back here on planet reality, it isn't of course anything to do with the judges from the European Court of Human Rights intervening on their own, but rather, as the Scum's article admits, they're being asked to rule on the legality of the matter by err, two Britons who wanted their DNA removed from the database after they were cleared of the crimes they were accused of. The case is more about how fingerprints and a DNA sample are now taken from everyone arrested, rather than just those charged or even convicted. While it would be nice to demand that no one not charged or cleared should have their data entered into the database, a compromise would be in the interests of everyone, including delayed justice. Those who aren't charged should have their data removed after say, two years, which is plenty of time for those working on cold cases to keep searching the database for matches to their own forensic data to come through.

The real issue has long been about creating such a database by stealth. If politicians wanted to be honest with us, rather than gradually building the database through arrests, everyone should have their details entered onto it over a period of time. This though would be hugely unpopular and have massive civil liberties implications, especially raising the possibility for miscarriages of justice. The newspapers and politicians that inform us that if we have nothing to hide we have nothing to fear would quickly blanch at such a plan, but they have no problem with the current situation which is manifestly unfair. One would like to think that my above suggestion was workable, or indeed, that it would be followed through on, but the loss of data scandals and the police's previous lies about removing information from the database only makes you realise how intractable the current policy is.

The Sun continues:

We understand the arguments about a Big Brother state. But Britain is in the grip of an all-out war against rising crime.

DNA fingerprinting is the greatest weapon detectives have been handed in a century.

It would be appalling if it was undermined by meddlers in Brussels.

Except that crime is either stable or falling, and has been now for a decade. All the advances in forensic evidence, CCTV and state surveillance haven't made any change to the feeling of insecurity which manifests itself everywhere, and the removal of such records from the database, whether down to the ECHR or otherwise, which might feasibly stop justice being done in major cases around 100 times a year at a rough guess, will similarly do nothing to either tackle or give rise to everyday fear of the outside world and crime.

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Thursday, March 15, 2007 

This is a dead parrot.

In those all too rare moments of optimism, I have like tygerland, who has just rejoined, thought about becoming a member of the Labour party. It's partly out of the naive belief that somehow my thoughts and my voice could help in some way to turn around the direction that New Labour has headed in, and also more recently out of the desire to make sure that the left-wing alternatives to Brown get as much support as possible, even if I don't particularly want either Meacher or McDonnell to lead the party, just to show how much grassroots support there is for a more radical government program, much like the one which tygerland sets out.

It's only later, or rather within minutes, that the much more familiar disillusion sets it. It'd be nice to think that Brown will be a more inclusive leader to Blair, someone prepared to listen to the activists and supporters on the ground rather than do exactly the opposite of what the vast majority of them would do, but all the evidence suggests that he'll be just as much as a control freak as Blair, if not more. Secondly, Brown has made more than apparent that he's not prepared to back down an inch on security and foreign policy matters. He supports an extension to the 28-days without charge detention limit for "terrorist suspects"; he supports the retention of Trident; he failed to stand up to Blair over Iraq; and he's showed no sign of being about to end Blair's Faustian pact with the Murdoch media.

Of course, it can be argued that ending the alliance with the Downing Street Echo would be tantamount to political suicide, that putting off a decision on renewing Trident would allow the Tories to take the initiative over security and claim that Labour is putting the security of the nation at risk, however ludicrous such a position would be, and that if he had opposed Blair over Iraq then he would have been sacked, but these are the exact sort of issues where decisions taken from on high have left the grassroots feeling angry, betrayed and disenfranchised.

The problem with Labour though is not just any longer with the leaders. It's with the whole package of policies which are currently being pursued. Take yesterday's announcement from the Home Office which outlines proposals given to it from a review of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. Ignore the gimmicky decision to put short-term jails in the local branch of Tesco, and instead focus on the vast expansion of the power to take DNA and fingerprints from anyone who so much as farts out of turn. From wanting to be tough on crime and the causes of crime, the current solution to all our problems seems to be to take everyone's biometric information and put it on every database the government can put out to tender. This is a huge change in the very nature of the relationship between citizen and state - if you manage to avoid being forced to get an ID card, then they'll get your fingerprints through catching you dropping litter, not cleaning up after a dog or not wearing a seatbelt. Those over 10 who commit non-recordable offences would also no longer be immune from having their fingerprints and DNA taken. From a database that was originally meant to be used only to help solve serious crimes, we've come to the point where it's now the largest in the world.

It's obvious to everyone what the police and some politicians want. They want the database to have everyone's data on it, but they can't come out and say that they want children to have their fingerprints taken at a certain age just in case they ever commit a crime. It would spark outrage, probably even in the Downing Street Echo. Instead, they're going about creating it by stealth, coming up with ever more weak excuses for taking personal information. Also worth noting is how plans originally mooted as being used to question "terrorist suspects" after they've been charged are now suggested to be used universally.

This is I think what makes most people so increasingly queasy about political parties in general, not just Labour. It's that you simply can't trust them, and that even if you did, they sure as hell don't trust you. Some have suggested that they're going to vote for the Tories at the next election simply because they've promised to scrap ID cards. After however much Labour has or is going to spend on the scheme, even if the Tories got in, I just can't imagine them ripping the whole thing apart.

Simply put, after 9 years of Labour government, putting up with numerous lies and so many unforgivable policies, to believe that re/joining the party now will make any genuine difference is laughable. The only way I can see relations between the political parties and the general public being repaired is for proportional representation to be introduced, forcing them to listen. Otherwise, I think we're headed for another generation of minority conservative government, whether through New New Labour or the Tories themselves, with ever reducing electoral turnout.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007 

Papers, citizen!

We shouldn't be too surprised that the whole truth about the ID cards scheme has finally come out. Blair, clutching at straws in his response to the petition against them on the 10 Downing Street website, has rather let the cat out of the bag:

I also believe that the National Identity Register will help police bring those guilty of serious crimes to justice. They will be able, for example, to compare the fingerprints found at the scene of some 900,000 unsolved crimes against the information held on the register. Another benefit from biometric technology will be to improve the flow of information between countries on the identity of offenders.

Yep, it's in essence what has long been the preserve of the more reactionary of police officers and the belief of Blair himself: that at birth everyone should be both fingerprinted and have a sample of their DNA taken. The reason why this is only being put forward stealthily is that Blair's savvy enough to know that this is one imposition on the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty and on liberty itself that the public would overwhelmingly reject. This isn't the first time that Blair has actually said something along these lines; he did back in November, but no one seems to have realised exactly what he meant or actually read his nonsense. The other mention was in a long forgotten Home Office document, as the Register notes. Other ministers have preferred to mention the "benefits" the ID cards will bring on fighting terrorism, benefit fraud and immigration rather than on tackling crime itself.

As said, we shouldn't be too shocked by this. Back in 2000, when the DNA database was still in its infancy, it was found that 50,000 DNA samples had been wrongly retained that should have been destroyed. Rather than do just that and tighten the scheme, as you would expect would happen, the government instead legitimised exactly what the police had been doing in secret. Now after another of Labour's crime bills, those arrested have their fingerprints and a DNA sample taken and put on the database regardless of whether they are ever charged with an offence. While it's true that a number of crimes committed decades ago have been solved as a result of this change in policy, the amount of samples on the database has now reached over 3 million, with ethnic minorities, especially black men aged 15 to 34 disproportionately making up a large number of the entries. Even children who have been wrongly arrested have had to campaign hard to have their information removed from the database, with parents only accepting that it genuinely had been destroyed by witnessing it happen, no longer just taking the word of the police.

Even faced with overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Home Office minister responsible for this intrusion could only come up with this pathetic diversion attempt:

But Joan Ryan, the junior Home Office minister, rejected any suggestion of a "fishing expedition" by police.

She said that police would have to check fingerprints against all their databases before requesting assistance from the Identity and Passport Service (IPS).

"They can approach IPS and approved IPS staff will be able to search the national identity register to see if we can achieve a match for that fingerprint," she said.

"So there won't be any fishing expeditions. That's complete nonsense, it's not what can happen."

Oh, so that's all right then. The police will instead be getting the IPS to do the fishing expeditions for them.

This is in effect one of the last nails in the coffin of privacy. We already have the most CCTV cameras in a Western country, if not the world, the largest number of DNA samples on a database in the world, the ID card will contain the most information on the person of any scheme in the West, a network of cameras that can track the movement of vehicles across the country, and unless the opposition against road charging grows further or is substantially changed, a scheme that will be almost an eye in the sky on the movement of every single privately owned motor vehicle. We're not yet a police state, but we're starting to get there.

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