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net.wars: Saving seeds

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 05 December 2008


The 17 judges of the European Court of Human Rights ruled unanimously yesterday that the UK's DNA database, which contains more than 3 million DNA samples, violates Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The key factor: retaining, indefinitely, the DNA samples of people who have committed no crime.

Wendy M Grossman

It's not a complete win for objectors to the database, since the ruling doesn't say the database shouldn't exist, merely that DNA samples should be removed once their owners have been acquitted in court or the charges have been dropped. England, the court said, should copy Scotland, which operates such a policy.

The UK comes in for particular censure, in the form of the note that "any State claiming a pioneer role in the development of new technologies bears special responsibility for striking the right balance…" In other words, before you decide to be the first on your block to use a new technology and show the rest of the world how it's done, you should think about the consequences.

Because it's true: this is the kind of technology that makes surveillance and control-happy governments the envy of other governments.

For example: lacking clues to lead them to a serial killer, the Los Angeles Police Department wants to copy Britain and use California's DNA database to search for genetic profiles similar enough to belong to a close relative .

The French DNA database, FNAEG, was proposed in 1996, created in 1998 for sex offenders, implemented in 2001, and broadened to other criminal offenses after 9/11 and again in 2003: a perfect example of function creep. But the French DNA database is a fiftieth the size of the UK's, and Austria's, the next on the list, is even smaller. There are some wonderful statistics about the UK database. DNA samples from more than 4 million people are included on it. Probably 850,000 of them are innocent of any crime. Some 40,000 are children between the ages of 10 and 17. The government (according to the Telegraph) has spent £182 million on it between April 1995 and March 2004. And there have been suggestions that it's too small.

When privacy and human rights campaigners pointed out that people of colour are disproportionately represented in the database, one of England's most experienced appeals court judges, Lord Justice Sedley, argued that every UK resident and visitor should be included on it. Yes, that's definitely the way to bring the tourists in: demand a DNA sample. Just look how they're flocking to the US to give fingerprints, and how many more flooded in when they upped the number to ten earlier this year. (And how little we're getting for it: in the first two years of the program, fingerprinting 44 million visitors netted 1,000 people with criminal or immigration violations.)

At last week's A Fine Balance conference on privacy-enhancing technologies, there was a lot of discussion of the key technique of data minimization. That is the principle that you should not collect or share more data than is actually needed to do the job. Someone checking whether you have the right to drive, for example, doesn't need to know who you are or where you live; someone checking you have the right to borrow books from the local library needs to know where you live and who you are but not your age or your health records; someone checking you're the right age to enter a bar doesn't need to care if your driver's license has expired.

This is an idea that's been around a long time – I think I heard my first presentation on it in about 1994 – but whose progress towards a usable product has been agonizingly slow. IBM's PRIME project, which Jan Camenisch presented, and Microsoft's purchase of Credentica (which wasn't shown at the conference) suggest that the mainstream technology products may finally be getting there. If only we can convince politicians that these principles are a necessary adjunct to storing all the data they're collecting.

What makes the DNA database more than just a high-tech fingerprint database is that over time the DNA stored in it will become increasingly revealing of intimate secrets. As Ray Kurzweil kept saying at the Singularity Summit, Moore's Law is hitting DNA sequencing right now; the cost is accordingly plummeting by factors of ten. When the database was set up, it was fair to characterize DNA as a high-tech version of fingerprints or iris scans.

Five – or 15, or 25, we can't be sure – years from now, we will have learned far more about interpreting genetic sequences. The coded, unreadable messages we're storing now will be cleartext one day, and anyone allowed to consult the database will be privy to far more intimate information about ourbodies, ourselves than we think we're giving them now.

Unfortunately, the people in charge of these things typically think it's not going to affect them. If the "little people" have no privacy, well, so what? It's only when the powers they've granted are turned on them that they begin to get it.

If a conservative is a liberal who's been mugged, and a liberal is a conservative whose daughter has needed an abortion, and a civil liberties advocate is a politician who's been arrested… maybe we need to arrest more of them.


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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).