Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Big-database-stick authoritarianism.

An intriguing turn of debate. "The whole population and every UK visitor should be added to the national DNA database, a
senior judge has said. My first thought was, naturally, WTF? But the article has a cunning line of argument. ord Justice Sedley actually says it would be fairer to put everyone on the DNA system than the system we have now. The accompanying "news" of an innocent man's DNA permanently stored certainly isn't new to anyone who's heard of the database, but serves to support the judge's point. Currently, there is very little ethical rationale behind the collection of DNA.

One of those things - you know, the map of who you are as an individual, the thing that defines your biological (and, some would claim, your mental) uniqueness - that should be discussed if it's going to start getting collected, tracked, compared. You'd thing we'd have asked questions about the appropriateness of this kind of thing already, but apparently we're all far to British to argue against something that solves crime.

Tony McNulty loves this idea, of course, although it's a shame it's just so difficult to do, you know?
"I have said in the past I think there is a case for a compulsory database. It would be a huge endeavour, both in practical terms and have real ethical and political dimensions to it"
Fortunately, even this far into the scheme, he's glad that "a debate had begun". Begun? Surely the debate should be over by now, given the nonsensical state of the "law" surrounding it.

Here are some refutals in order to contribute to the "debate":

1. McNutty claims the database "helped police solve as many as 20,000 crimes a year." Pushing the definition of "as many as" aside, what does this really mean? Would they have solved it without the database? It might make solving them easier, though, just as more surveillance might make it easier, but more on this below.

2. Readers of Dredd will find resonance with this bit of Sedley's talk:
It means that everybody, guilty or innocent, should expect their DNA to be on file for the absolutely rigorously restricted purpose of crime detection and prevention."
This gets right to the heart of the matter: everybody becomes a suspect. No longer are you tracked once you have committed a crime. Instead, you are tracked in advance, so that if when you commit a crime, you are caught. The presumption is of guilt, and the solution is to keep watch of everyone. Innocence is forced. Authoritarianism through shaking-a-big-database-stick at everyone is complete.

3. Will this actually decrease crime then? No, it just helps to catch those who commit it. As we've seen time and time again with CCTV, surveillance does not deter the delinquent, but generates it through an omission of trust and responsibility. All that stick shaking above, funnily enough, breeds contempt. Britain becomes yet more of a prison state than it already is.

Apparently the public might get consulted about all this, but the usual definition of "debate" will probably apply. Debate involves people talking with each other, but modern politics just means individuals ranting into a central set of tubes, wherein all echoes and disappears. If we want debate on the subject, and the accompanying awareness of who we really are, then we have to do it ourselves.

Erratum: Oops, that last link was from November last year. But according to the Nuffield site, the report is due out on the the 18th of this month. The "debate", of course, consisted of one "public" meeting (oddly in February 2006, with 25 people present - see the PDF notes), and a working party.

Update: ORG raise some brief, but interesting points on further uses of DNA such as family links and health issues. In other words, the potential function crepes (mmm, tasty) of the info stored have implications we can't even begin to think about. IIRC, insurance companies aren't allowed to know the results of genetic tests for disease (I may be wrong/out of date here). Why should the government? (There are many more reasons other than financial why not...)

Update 2: Spyblog has more talk and links here.

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