Jago Russell (Policy Officer, Liberty) gives expert video advice on: What would a DNA database be used for?; What are the implications of a DNA database to personal privacy?; What are the government's plans for a child database? and more...
What would a DNA database be used for?
The UK's DNA database is the biggest database in the world. The government claims that there are a number of benefits for this and I think there is no doubt that some of them do stack up. The government says, for example, that it has been used to help identify cold cases, so a number of cases where the files have effectively been closed because there wasn't any information. The availability of new DNA technology has made it possible to solve some of those, to find out who was on the scene at the time and who was potentially responsible for the crime. But the benefits of the DNA database have been massively overplayed. A targeted database of convicted criminals would be just as likely to be this crime detection role, as the huge DNA database that we have in the UK at the moment.
What are the implications of a DNA database to personal privacy?
The DNA Database has a significant and severe implication to personal privacy. You could say it's changing us from a society of citizens into one of suspects. Effectively what happens is that the person's DNA will be stored on the database indefinitely if they are arrested for a criminal offense, even if very quickly thereafter the police decide that they're not the right person. So your DNA is taken and stored forever, even if you are cleared. Now there's no reason to believe, there's no evidence to suggest that just because you've been arrested for an offense you're more likely to commit an offense in the future. So there's no justification for holding the DNA of these people for years on end. You have thousands of children's DNA on the database. In a way you can see them as being marked for life, and the DNA sample itself is kept for years on end, which will effectively mean that that in the future could be used for other purposes far beyond the current things. And so there are severe concerns about how having a DNA database could affect a personal privacy.
What are the government's plans for a child database?
Following the tragic death of Victoria Climbie, the government had the bright idea of creating a database of every child in the United Kingdom. The aim of that database is child protection, so to enable and facilitate better information sharing about children, so those children that are really most in need can be protected. Sadly, it's very unlikely to be effective in achieving that, and it's not only privacy organizations that are concerned about privacy, like Liberty, that are making those kind of claims. There are also a number of children's organizations that are also saying that this won't make children feel safer. In fact it could be counter-productive. One obvious problem is that if you have information of every child in the U.K., it would become very difficult to see the wood for the trees. How are you going to identify the one child that's at risk if every child's information is stored on this enormous database? Another big concern is that children won't seek the help that they need if they feel or believe that the fact that they're seeking the help is going to be recorded on this enormous database for their teachers and others to see in the future. So there are a number of real concerns about the possible counter-productivity of the database.
What would a child database be used for?
The government's argument is that the children's index will be used to protect children. Of course that's a very legitimate aim and no one would dispute that. If sharing information will make children safer then nobody would dispute that, of course that's fine. In practice our concern though is that it won't be affective and in doing that actually the children's index could actually make people less safe because they won't seek the help they need. But, yes the government's argument is that's it's a child protection one. The case that gave rise to the children index was Victoria Climbie and the reason the government thought that a children's index was such a good idea is that they had misunderstood the law as it stands. They thought that it wasn't possible under the existing law to share information about children who were in need or children who were vulnerable, Well it is clear that that's possible, the current law allows that information to be shared. But actually the string of failures which led to Victoria Climbie's death meant that that didn't happen in practice, which was a terrible string of failures.
How would a child database affect family privacy?
The Children's Index could have significant implications for the privacy of the child concerned and their family more broadly. People often forget that children also have a right to privacy. People think of children as things that just need protecting, as things that don't have rights on their own account. Of course, that's not true. Children have just as much right to privacy as everybody else, so that's something that's been overlooked far too frequently in the debates around the Children's Index. The Children's Index could also have implications for broader family privacy so, for example, if a parent was suffering from post-natal depression, that might well be registered on the database as a relevant factor which could perhaps indicate that the child was at high risk. Also, the rest of the family members could well be brought within the scope of the Children's Index.