Wednesday, 19 August 2009

China shows us the DNA

It's a well-known fact that Britain has the largest DNA database on earth, and the present government is determined to carry on happily adding to it, despite the minor inconvenience of an adverse ruling from the European Court of Human Rights. New guidelines, designed to evade the ECHR ruling rather than to implement it, are almost certain to be introduced unamended, despite the widespread criticism the government's "consultation document" has attracted. Professor Sheila Bird, vice-president of the Royal Statistical Society, described the Home Office's arguments as "a travesty of both statistical science and logical thinking".

I've taken the Home Office's largely bogus claims to pieces before, as have others. What struck me most, though, was what seemed to be the unstated agenda of the government's favoured academic source, Professor Ken Pease, a leading exponent of the pessimistic criminological concept known as Rational Choice Theory. Pease suggested - while admitting that there was not a jot of evidence - that the DNA database would have a deterrent effect on anyone included on it. Of course, if you think that the primary purpose of a DNA database is deterring crime rather than solving crimes that have already been committed, then the more extensive it is, the better. A database designed for crime solving is more efficient if it is confined to likely criminals - especially likely violent and sexual criminals - because samples taken from innocent people create noise which increases the possibility of false positives, false leads (from people innocently at the scene of a crime, perhaps weeks earlier, who then need to be eliminated at some expense) and miscarriages of justice.

This ulterior motive, I think, explains why the Home Office's document - which reproduced Pease's questionable research - fell into what critics identified as errors in reasoning. It failed to distinguish between the likelihood of a person being arrested and the likelihood of them committing or being convicted of a crime. Indeed, Pease seemed to think that being arrested and being a criminal were one and the same thing. This is a grievous mistake, if you are concerned with accuracy, logic or preserving civil liberties in a free society, but understandable if your main aim is to build up the DNA database as rapidly as possible. The logical next step would be to identify other types of people (in addition to those who have been arrested) who might be considered at risk of offending, and add them to the database.

And, in China, this is now starting to happen. Police in Canton (Guangzhou) have begun collecting samples from everyone employed in "the entertainment industry", including bar workers and nightclub employees, on the grounds that such places are often associated with crime. (Which they are, of course, but not usually crime committed by the staff.) China Daily reports that 4,233 employees in 118 nightclubs, karaoke bars have already been recorded on the DNA database. Anyone wishing to work in the entertainment industry must produce a certificate, confirming that they have given a DNA sample and fingerprints to the authorities. Even in China, some people feel this is going a bit too far, feeling it reflects "deep-seated prejudice" against nightclub workers. But others, I imagine, repeated whatever the Chinese is for "if you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear".

Western governments, I sense, look with some envy on the country's combination of prodigious economic growth and central control. Whether it's censorship of the internet or surveillance of the population, what happens in China increasingly sets the pace for the rest of the world. So - without wishing to give the Home Office any more ideas - I wouldn't be amazed to hear similar arguments being made over here before too long, especially if they manage to face down the Strasbourg judges. Perhaps airport workers, who were supposed to be top of the list for the National Identity Register, will be first in the queue (threat of terrorism, and all that). Or will it be people who work with children and other "vulnerable" people, who will shortly be forced to pay £64 to prove they aren't paedophiles?

UPDATE: BBC reports that Tory spokesman Damian Green MP has succeeded in having his DNA record removed from the database. The police describe his case as "exceptional". I think that must mean "high profile". Glad to see Green realises it isn't just about him, though.


"I think the government is behaving pretty disgracefully, they've been told by the European Court that the current policy is illegal and they are dragging their feet as slowly as possible, supported, I am afraid to say, by senior police."

Note this:

A Home Office spokesman told the BBC: "We are clear that the DNA database plays a vital role in helping us protect the public by preventing crime and bringing offenders to justice."


"Preventing crime" comes before "bringing offenders to justice". So it is principally about deterrence - although there is no evidence that the database has such an effect. Interesting.