I do not want to have my conversations picked up by street-based microphones. I do not want anyone to have access to my phone calls and emails without a judicial permit, and I certainly do not want to be breaking the law if I walk down the street without an ID card. All of these are government proposals which truly threaten my liberties and privacy. Storing my DNA on a national database poses no such threat, which is why I am saddened and frankly surprised at the public outrage that surrounds talk of DNA storage.
The European Court of Human Rights recently ordered the British government to destroy 857 000 DNA samples of innocent people, claiming that holding such information was an unacceptable breach of civil liberties.
Yet in what tangible way is my life affected if the government holds a small sample of my saliva on a database? Will anyone who attacks me be more likely to feel cold fury of British justice? Probably. Will I be more swiftly caught if I am overcome by a sudden urge to rape? Almost certainly. Will I become the helpless victim of an unstoppable, all-powerful police state? Most definitely not.
When the bold warriors of civil liberties such as Shami Chakrabarti (who I agree with on most occasions) decry the loss of our rights to the evil database, I wonder exactly which rights she is talking about. She may mean the right to keep my genetic sequence (which I don’t even know) a secret. Well thank the Lord for her efforts. I’ve spent too many nights tossing and turning for fear that someone may discover the series of Gs, Cs, As and Ts that indicate to the expert eye what I look like. More likely, she may mean the right not to have my genetic information shared with outside interests like insurance companies. In defending this right she is entirely justified, but her argument should be one for stringent safeguards, not for throwing out DNA information along with all its immense potential for good. With the appropriate security measures in place we can enjoy the innumerable benefits of a DNA database without worrying that our information is being shared.
The extraordinary possibilities of a DNA database for fighting crime are undeniable. We should not let the governments spurious claims about the potential of ID cards for combating terrorism lead us to believe that everything they say is nonsense. Between 2001 and 2005, DNA evidence led to 8500 previously unconvicted people being linked to 14000 offences, including 114 murders and 116 rapes. This technology helps to maintain the Bri
tish murder conviction rate as one of the best in the world.
Aside from a vast archive of personal details including age, occupation and address, we all willingly hand over our dental records, eye prescription and vaccination history to the clawing hands of the state. The government already possesses extensive information on us, none of which is so invaluable to crime prevention, so why the uproar when it comes to DNA?
A common cry of protest is that innocent people’s data is being held, which apparently criminalises them before they’ve done anything wrong. But storing an innocent’s information is not some outrageous presumption that they will commit a crime, just a realistic acceptance that they might.
Furthermore, no reasonable person can question the strength of DNA evidence. Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys, a pioneering scientist of DNA fingerprinting, informs us that the chances of a match between two unrelated people is one in ten trillion. Second rounds of testing can limit the possibility of human error, and all the evidence must be examined by the defence, the prosecution and the judge. Thanks to DNA technology, Sean Hodgson has just been realised after serving twenty-seven years for a murder he didn’t commit. While most agree that DNA evidence should only form part of a case, it is immeasurably more reliable in determining who has been where than eyewitness reports so often distorted by the imperfections of memory.
If the government ever tries to force an ID card in my pocket, or listen to my phone calls without just cause, I’ll be the first marching through London with a banner of protest. But when it comes to DNA the British public consensus needs to stop, think, and realise that it is wrong. There are many genuine enemies to be fought in defence of civil liberties – the DNA database is not one of them.