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How storing DNA differs from storing passport photos

Posted by James Hammerton @ 5:49 pm on 10 May, 2009.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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Alasdair Palmer, writing in the Sunday Telegraph, claims that keeping DNA is no different from storing photos:

Most people react to the state’s photo database with a shrug: they have my photo? Big deal. And yet many of the same people also feel profoundly threatened by the Government’s DNA database, asserting that it really is an assault on privacy, liberty and the presumption of innocence. This is deeply puzzling. A record of your DNA is simply the equivalent of a photo of the inside of one of your cells. Why get worried about that – but not about a picture of your face?

I have yet to come across any reason for thinking that it is more destructive of liberty and privacy for the government to keep a record of the intricate chemical mechanism that reproduces your cells than it is for it to keep your photo. Certainly the European Court did not provide one. The court insisted that the Government violated human rights law when it retained DNA data. But the arguments it gave – that the retaining of DNA was “blanket and indiscriminate” – would equally apply to every state’s passport photo archive. And the European Court did not require the British Government to destroy its photo database on the grounds that it was “disproportionate”.

There are a several differences between storing photos on a passport database and storing people’s DNA:

  • DNA contains far more sensitive information about you than the photograph of your face and shoulders stored in the passport database. For example, using DNA samples you can determine the degree to which people are related and how susceptible a person is to a range of diseases. The potential for the abusing a DNA database by selling such information on or providing to those who have no business knowing it will be magnified should such a database be made “universal”.
  • Because we involuntarily leave DNA around in the form of hairs and skin cells as we go about our daily lives, DNA can be used to help determine whether someone has been in a given location, by comparing someone’s profile against the samples found at the location. This is the very basis upon which DNA profiling works. Until we have facial recognition systems that work reliably (we currently don’t) this simply cannot be done with photographs, and it would also require CCTV cameras to be far more pervasive than they are now.
  • The storage of a photo in a passport database is done for purposes of verifying that a passport belongs to the person presenting it, rather than for identifying people. The purpose of storing DNA in the National DNA database is to help identify who was at the scene of a crime during investigations.

All three of these differences impact on the level of intrusion into privacy represented by the two cases, and make the storing of DNA a more intrusive proposition than the storing of a photograph for limited purposes.

Later on Palmer writes:

There is a clear public policy justification for the DNA database, and it is not just that it helps provide evidence to convict the guilty. It is equally important for acquitting the innocent.

Many people have already been ruled out of police inquiries because their DNA does not match that found at the scene of the crime. A few have been released from prison sentences because DNA proved they could not have committed the crimes of which they were convicted.

It requires a strange view of the importance of not convicting the innocent – the “presumption of innocence” central to our criminal law – to decry the retaining of DNA samples. For retaining DNA simply makes it possible for the courts to apply that principle more effectively.

This is a flawed argument. There is NO NEED WHATSOEVER to store innocent people’s DNA for the purposes of eliminating them from investigation. Should suspicion fall on someone who is innocent, you can test their DNA against that found at the crime scene, without there being any need for their DNA sample to be stored in the database, simply by taking a sample from them to test at that time.

It is worth considering the likely consequences of trying to make a “universal” DNA database:

  • DNA profiling currently involves a false match rate of 1 in a few million. If you restrict the DNA database to only those who are convicted of crimes and those who are currently under investigation, you reduce the likelihood of accidental matches. A “universal” DNA database for all 60 million inhabitants of the UK will generate false matches on just about every search, thus degrading the value of the DNA database as a crime fighting tool.
  • One strategy for criminals to try and counter the DNA database is to plant someone else’s DNA at a crime scene (and minimise the risk of leaving your own there). Making the DNA database “universal” will make this strategy more likely to work since it is far more likely that the person you choose will have their DNA stored on the database, again degrading the usefulness of DNA.
  • Those criminals who do not wish their DNA to be stored on the database are unlikely to meekly go along with efforts to make it universal. Strategies they can employ to prevent being caught by the system include registering under someone else’s identity; bribing, tricking or intimidating the database maintainers to alter or delete their record or simply evading registration.
  • It is inevitable that attempts to construct a “universal” DNA database will involve error. No database of the size we’re talking about can be constructed error free. Samples will get mislabeled, matched to the wrong records or even lost. This is true even for the current DNA database, but the logistics of trying to create a “universal” database will likely increase the error rate. Also, instead of those affected primarily being those who’ve been convicted of crime or arrested within the last 12 years, these errors would affect literally anyone.

For all these reasons, my view is that DNA samples should only be kept for those currently under investigation and those convicted of crime. The DNA database will be more effective, the error rates will be lower, the scope for abuse of the system will be lower and the intrusion into privacy will be lower.

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