Monday, 8 December 2008

Face My Wrath, Comments Section

A couple of people are wondering what exactly my problem is with the DNA database, so I figured I'd lay out my concerns in a post.

There are four reasons I am leery about a DNA database, and none of them are of the "what if the government are mean ol' clone-happy bastards" variety.

The first concern is the most banal: how much is this actually going to cost to create, maintain, and make sure is running the way it's supposed to? Whilst I'm not particularly concerned about government misuse of such an asset, bureaucratic incompetence is certainly something worthy of consideration.

Now, obviously when something is obviously a good idea, cost isn't something I'd be bleating about quite so much. Contra S. Spielbergo, I have a hard time seeing the obvious bonus to holding everyone's DNA on file.

That would be problem number 2: what are the benefits of the database? In the past I've likened DNA testing to the police searching your house. The police have the right, given sufficient reasonable suspicion, to enter my flat and search for incriminating evidence. It's understood that my flat is my property (well, not mine exactly, but for the sake of argument), and it can't be invaded by the authorities unless they have a pretty good reason.

As far as I can see, if my flat is mine, then my double helix is definitely mine. If the police want to test my DNA, they better have a court order with them. It seems to me an obvious no-brainer, as far as due process is concerned. And if you do need that order to test someone's genetic material, why not just get it when you need it? If the government takes my DNA from me at a point when I am innocent of any crime, then later I commit a crime, they test the DNA at the scene, and come arrest me on that and that alone, how is that not a violation of the idea that we should be free from self-incrimination? There's a reason we have the right to silence. In that sense, Big G's point that "no-one is going to get convicted on the strength of DNA evidence alone" is irrelevant. All that matters is that the chain of evidence gathering begins with a bullshit call, just in the same way that a case will be thrown out if it started with an illegal car search, irrelevant of whether that search had turned up three dead hookers and a keg of anthrax.

So you can't use the database to just drum up a list of suspects, or at least you shouldn't. You can do whatever tests you want on the DNA samples you find at a crime scene, but you don't get to just run it against a whole bunch of people, at most one of whom isn't entirely innocent, and hope you'll get a couple of juicy leads. Especially since DNA matching isn't nearly as precise as the movies try to make it look. Like every other human system, there are flaws and there are complications.

This ties into my third problem, which is a general one with the process itself. It's a tricky business, is DNA testing, with lots of tricky conditional probabilities floating around. There actually exists legal precedent on the amount of probability you are allowed to give to a jury (it being the subject of supermen), and all this stuff about false positives and population frequencies (to say nothing of the Prosecutor's Fallacy) can overwhelm a jury, and has on at least one occasion. All of which means I am worried about the possibility of relying upon DNA evidence in court. Again, this is the problem with Big G's argument; cases have existed in which DNA similarity was the strongest piece of evidence in a trial. If you present enough circumstantial evidence and then heap genetic testing on top of it, you may well get a conviction which you wouldn't have had with the circumstantial evidence alone. So, and whilst I realise this is simply a suspicion at this point, I'd be worried about an increased reliance upon DNA evidence that such a database might represent.

And finally, and this is pretty minor but relevant nonetheless, my genetic data belongs to me. Everyone has their own personal opinions on the relationship between the government and the individual, obviously. As far as I'm concerned, they can have my taxes (on the occasions that I'm actually required to pay them) as the price of living in a civilised society. They can have the details they need for me to have a bank account and travel overseas as the price of me not having to hoard gold under my bed or get slaughtered by invading Visigoths, respectively.

What do I get out of handing over my DNA? An increased possibility of recognising my body if I die in mysterious circumstances? If that's all we're talking about we could set up a far smaller data base of families who have lost members, against which John or Jane Does could be referenced.

Like I said, this last point isn't particularly major, but I do think that a cogent and compelling case needs to be made by the government before they receive anything from its citizenry, and I don't see that here.

In conclusion, then, it will be expensive, it would be outrageous to use it without the same due process required of other searches, it might well add to an already worrying problem regarding how the justice system deals with the technology, and it violates the idea that the government should only take from us what it truly needs.

That's my problem. Have at it in comments.

Oh, and just for the record, I agree entirely with Big G that increased detention times are a bigger problem. I also think my girlfriend murdering my family is a bigger problem than her cheating on me, but I reserve the right to be pissed if I find her in bed with some other guy.

8 comments:

jamie said...

Well, doesn't look like a massive amount of controversy generated I'm afraid, and I'm going continue the trend and say that those reasons make complete sense to me.

SpaceSquid said...

Woo-hoo!

Senior Spielbergo said...

I have some controversy to supply but am a slow typer and am quite busy (admittedly at the moment I'm quite busy eating but it still slows me down...)

Senior Spielbergo said...

1. The cost argument, this is one I’m willing to be flexible on as I simply don’t know how much it would cost so it’s pretty much impossible to give an informed view on if it is worth the cost or not. I suspect that determining that would be quite complicated as it is likely to give some elements of secondary savings in other services which would also have to be factored in. There will obviously be a point where it’s not worth doing, but without figures I don’t think I can make a judgement on if it is too expensive or not. Clearly if it’s going to cost half the home affairs budget then it’s not going to be cost effective. But if it’s a fraction of a percent then it could well be depending on the level of benefit you get in return.

2. I have to say I don’t get your comparison between being able to look up your details on a database and the police searching your house. To me there is a very simple distinction, one is intrusive the other is not. Unobtrusive database searches have long been deemed acceptable as part of law enforcement duties (and quite frankly countless other areas where pretty much any database is useful). Next time you drive down the A1, watch out for the good old ANPR cameras as every car that drives through one of them has it’s registration number read, the registered owners details analysed, his insurance, mot, licence and tax details checked to see if they are in order all without any interference in your driving whatsoever. Should your name come up as part of an enquiry the police can check all sorts of databases to determine things like what vehicles you own, what electoral register you are on, previous convictions etc. Looking up details on a computer has absolutely no discernable effect on your life and is accepted as a perfectly reasonable method of saving the police time and resources and enabling them to do their job with at least a modicum of efficiency. The alternative would be to vastly increase funding for the police, maybe increase the number of officers 10 fold and have them try and chase down each and every lead manually. Even then you’d still probably see a huge drop in detection rates.

You also miss an important point which is that from a law enforcement perspective, DNA information is not just used to locate suspects. Sure you get the occasional case where DNA evidence leads you to a known criminal and then it makes life easier to build a case (note that a case still has to be built, simply proving that the guy was there is never enough to even get it passed the QPS) hopefully saving police resources in the process and increasing detection rates. Where it is also useful is in locating potential witnesses who may have information that can again help with the case. A lot of the time media releases and public appeals still don’t result in you tracking down all the people who may have seen something useful. If you can utilise forensics to track down all the people who were in that particular location in a set time frame then it increases the amount of information you can gather and again can help improve detection rates. Finally you also have the issue that having a DNA database can also be utilised to discount people from the equation. In a lot of cases where forensics are employed you will gather up DNA from a whole bunch of people who are did not commit the crime but need to be discounted in order to maximise the chance of a successful prosecution. The defence Advocate (sorry Barrister in your speak) gets access to all the forensic reports, and if you’ve got a sample of DNA recovered from the scene that you’ve not been able to identify then he is going to be able to use that to help establish reasonable doubt. With a DNA database it is a simple matter to determine who that person is, maybe interview them and hopefully eliminate them as a potential suspect which would otherwise potentially allow the real criminal to get away with it.

3. The impression I get with this argument is that it is actually an argument about utilising DNA evidence at all, rather than an argument against a DNA database. Now DNA evidence is very much here to stay and short of there been a whole scale change of the rules, it is surely important that the process that is used is as accurate and useful as possible? I would agree that DNA evidence has its limitations, but at the same time it has its strengths as well. In that way it is exactly the same as every other method of gathering evidence that does or ever has exists.

4. I’ll leave this one alone as I don’t agree with it, but it is a completely personal thing. I find it slightly surprising that you think this way given your previous support for the opt-out organ donor scenario (which to my mind is potentially a lot more intrusive on people of certain beliefs) but so be it.

5. Finally a last general point, my issue with these sorts of things is always that you get the following circular problem:

Joe Public: I don’t like all these criminals stealing my stuff / raping our women / killing people / speeding down my roads / intimidating me in the streets / all this drunken violence (pick your favourite)! You need to catch more of them Mr Policeman so they won’t keep doing it!
Mr Policeman: Well OK but we’ve yet again got even more paperwork we need to complete because some incredibly high paid defence lawyer has got his client off on a brand new technicality so we don’t have any further officers to commit to that problem. If you give us some more funding we could get some more officers to help deal with that?
Joe Public: NO! You can’t have any more money because that will mean I will pay more taxes or not get those other services I like so much.
Mr Policeman: Ohhh… OK well I suppose we can come up with new and more efficient ways of working that will hopefully let us catch a few more of these criminals and maybe get a few more prosecutions?
Joe Public: NO! These new more “efficient” methods are clearly a breach of my human rights so I’m going to stop you doing them.
Mr Policeman: Emmmm…. Well I don’t see how we’re going to help you with that other matter then, as your not giving us any more resources, or allowing us to utilise our proposed efficiency saving ideas, and we’ve just had another defence lawyer rough up our underpaid QPS lawyer so it looks like we’ll have even more paperwork to do…
Joe Public: WHAHAHAHAHAHAA! You suck Mr Policeman! What on earth do I pay my taxes for! I know I’ll sue your constabulary for not fixing my complaints, and I’ll get all these other people in on the class action as you’ve not been able to help them either.
Mr Policeman: But… But… Now we have even less money!
Joe Public: So have you got round to catching those criminals I was pestering you about earlier?
Mr Policeman: ???

Basically in my view there is presently too much crime, and I’m fairly confident that that will be a view shared by the majority of the population. Law enforcement is one of the primary ways of dealing with the problem (it’s not the only one, personally I think education is the key one but it is one of the most important especially when you want results now). People want better results in this area and the only way that can be achieved is through more funding (which no one wants to fund) to supply more resources, or actually listening to the senior police officers when they propose new ways of allowing them to work more efficiently. Now there is always a balance to be struck between civil liberties and the needs to run a society. We need both sets of people, one arguing that we should live in a police state and the other one arguing for civil liberties and as with most things the correct balance is always going to be somewhere in between the two positions. To me a DNA database falls into that correct balance scenario as it’s effect on civil liberties is at worst minimalistic and it is something that these experts believe would help law enforcement. The civil liberties camp has to be capable of giving ground somewhere, just as the police state camp have to give ground as well.

I probably have more to say but I should really get back to work now… Man that Chicken Curry was good…

SpaceSquid said...

"2. I have to say I don’t get your comparison between being able to look up your details on a database and the police searching your house. To me there is a very simple distinction, one is intrusive the other is not."

Whilst it is true that the intrusion aspect is an added problem with police searches, it's not a relevant distinction unless we allow the police to search houses so long as the owners are out, and they promise not to make a mess.

"Should your name come up as part of an enquiry the police can check all sorts of databases to determine things like what vehicles you own, what electoral register you are on, previous convictions etc."

The obvious difference here is that I am only allowed to drive under the sufferance of the government. The suggestion that they be privy to all relevant details that allow me to own and operate as dangerous a machine as a car seems entirely reasonable. The same cannot possibly be said of my DNA.

Moreover, something doesn't become OK just because I'm not aware of it. Otherwise, what is there to stop the government from tattooing our foreheads with invisible bar-codes that can be picked up by CCTV? We wouldn't know they were there, the data would be sifted without our knowledge. What's the difference?

"Where it is also useful is in locating potential witnesses who may have information that can again help with the case"

Methods for doing this already exist, of course. I grant that they are imperfect, but I'm not sure the idea that we check every DNA strand from a crime scene in the hopes of finding someone who a) witnessed the event, b) is willing to talk to the authorities about it, c) didn't think to come forward and d) would have thought about coming forward if they hadn't missed Crimestoppers is a particularly plausible one. I'm no expert, and I'm willing to be corrected, but what little I know on the subject suggests that mass testing of every sample at every crime scene in the hopes of identifying a witness is something of a pipe dream.

"Finally you also have the issue that having a DNA database can also be utilised to discount people from the equation. In a lot of cases where forensics are employed you will gather up DNA from a whole bunch of people who are did not commit the crime but need to be discounted in order to maximise the chance of a successful prosecution."

This is just a reworking of the "guilt by DNA" idea; except that instead of finding the 1 person who did it out of N samples, you're finding the N-1 who didn't. Which is essentially the same thing, only at a greatly increased cost in money and time.

"3. The impression I get with this argument is that it is actually an argument about utilising DNA evidence at all, rather than an argument against a DNA database."

Yes, and no. It's more a reminder that DNA is prone to being overvalued as evidence in trials, especially given canny prosecutors and/or "expert" witnesses, and that is something I'd like to see dealt with before we start relying on it more heavily for evidence. I grant, though, that it is something of a parenthetical point.

"I find it slightly surprising that you think this way given your previous support for the opt-out organ donor scenario"

This one's easy: there has been no suggestion that the DNA database would have an opt-out clause. Even if it did, I'd be wary about assuming that removing myself from it wouldn't set off alarm bells somewhere. Not wanting people to have your lungs once you die is one thing, not wanting the police to be able to check crime-scene DNA against yours is something else.

"5. Finally a last general point, my issue with these sorts of things is always that you get the following circular problem:"

Since I'm perfectly happy with higher taxes, this doesn't really wash. All your pointing out is that someone will be annoyed no matter what is done, which is pretty much a universal truism, but doesn't invalidate a priori any specific objection to the current situation or to proposed changes.

"Basically in my view there is presently too much crime"

As oppose to not enough crime?

"To me a DNA database falls into that correct balance scenario as it’s effect on civil liberties is at worst minimalistic and it is something that these experts believe would help law enforcement. The civil liberties camp has to be capable of giving ground somewhere, just as the police state camp have to give ground as well."

Leaving aside the fairly strange implication that the civil liberties camp never gives ground, and the idea that civil liberties and police state represent a scale upon which position can be directly correlated with crime rate, I have no problem admitting that there may be some things we simply have to endure for the sake of a workable society. That's why I don't kick up a fuss if I get stopped in customs, for example, or complain that I have to have a passport to leave the country, or (as already pointed out) that I can't drive without the government's permission. We just apparently disagree on the cost/benefit analysis of this particular idea, is all.

Senior Spielbergo said...

“Whilst it is true that the intrusion aspect is an added problem with police searches, it's not a relevant distinction unless we allow the police to search houses so long as the owners are out, and they promise not to make a mess.”

Again – no not getting it. A house or a person search is intrusive not simply through the nature of it’s proximity but because of the sheer variety of potentially private information that can be dug up. They can find anything from embarrassing underwear, to that stash of Porn Mags you keep under Gooders bed, to well anything really. Hence why it is very much a potential invasion of privacy. A database search can only ever produce one very specific piece of information and is hence much more limited in scope and hence completely different. With a DNA search the searching person already has your DNA basically in his hand, he is just finding out who it belongs to.

“The obvious difference here is that I am only allowed to drive under the sufferance of the government. The suggestion that they be privy to all relevant details that allow me to own and operate as dangerous a machine as a car seems entirely reasonable. The same cannot possibly be said of my DNA.”

By the same token you live in a community that has to be policed. Something I suspect you yourself actually want. Therefore it is entirely reasonable to provide such information that will allow law enforcement to do it’s job in a reasonable way. You only get to have police, a prosecution service, and a judicial system under the sufferance of the government, so by the same token pony up all the relevant details they need to do their job.

“This is just a reworking of the "guilt by DNA" idea; except that instead of finding the 1 person who did it out of N samples, you're finding the N-1 who didn't. Which is essentially the same thing, only at a greatly increased cost in money and time.”

Yep – But something defence lawyers will make you do unless you fancy wasting a lot of time and money in a prosecution that will ultimately fail.

“Since I'm perfectly happy with higher taxes, this doesn't really wash. All your pointing out is that someone will be annoyed no matter what is done, which is pretty much a universal truism, but doesn't invalidate a priori any specific objection to the current situation or to proposed changes.”

You actually got round to paying any taxes yet? (And this from the man who lives in your friendly neighbourhood tax haven) I’m quite happy to “trade” higher taxes and more funding for things like this, unfortunately the rest of the population typically is not. As I said before, this, in my view, is such a tiny infringement on anyone’s civil rights that as far as balance goes it works out quite well. Should the population switch to being prepared to pay higher taxes I’m willing to adjust my stance.

“We just apparently disagree on the cost/benefit analysis of this particular idea, is all.”

Yep and I suspect it’s all down to that personal belief thing. You have this attachment to the secrecy of the contents of your double helix that I clearly don’t, so hence why I’m not going to really appreciate your point. Tell you what; I’ll trade you leaving your double helix alone if you can go a month without having a pop at my religion?

SpaceSquid said...

"Again – no not getting it. A house or a person search is intrusive not simply through the nature of it’s proximity but because of the sheer variety of potentially private information that can be dug up."

It's not like a DNA molecule doesn't hold a lot of information about you. There are all kinds of crazy conditions that can be etched onto those little buggers. I grant that people reading up on those isn't quite so worrying as the fuzz finding "Ubernorks" under your bed, but it's not like people aren't rooting around in potentially private areas.

I'm not trying to argue the two are directly equivalent by this metric, just that both have their issues.

"By the same token you live in a community that has to be policed. Something I suspect you yourself actually want. Therefore it is entirely reasonable to provide such information that will allow law enforcement to do it’s job in a reasonable way. You only get to have police, a prosecution service, and a judicial system under the sufferance of the government, so by the same token pony up all the relevant details they need to do their job."

That's circular reasoning; the DNA database is reasonable because the police need it to do their job in a reasonable way. Yes, I want my neighbourhood policed, but it's not like the absence of the database has reduced Britain to blood-splattered anarchy.

In fact, while we're on the subject, exactly what difference are we expecting from the database? A 10% drop in crime? 1%? 0.001%? There seem to be plenty of people convinced it will make a big dent in the statistics, but I've yet to see any evidence that such would be the case.

"Yep – But something defence lawyers will make you do unless you fancy wasting a lot of time and money in a prosecution that will ultimately fail."

I would imagine that depends a great deal on the circumstances. Besides, it just supports the point that the DNA database won't necessarily be all that much use.

"You actually got round to paying any taxes yet?"

Two years teaching. It's not like I've never put my money where my mouth is.

"I’m quite happy to “trade” higher taxes and more funding for things like this, unfortunately the rest of the population typically is not."

Aside from not being sure you're right about that (though you may well be), the problem with this formulation is that the DNA database may well require less civil liberty and more taxes. Moreover, I think the idea that whether or not a given civil liberty should be revoked should be down to public opinion is a fairly dangerous one, though I grant that this is pretty much the most minor example one could think of.

"You have this attachment to the secrecy of the contents of your double helix that I clearly don’t, so hence why I’m not going to really appreciate your point."

Well, that's a fair comment, assuming you haven't read any of the other objections I've outlined.

"Tell you what; I’ll trade you leaving your double helix alone if you can go a month without having a pop at my religion?"

I'm pretty sure musings on dogma, the way it's interpreted, and the weird things specific people do in the name of Catholicism, can all be considered above the level of "a pop".

Gooder said...

I'v not read the full arguments above but I do think the home invasion thing is flawed. If there was a database your DNA would be held here (like your NI details are held) anything that the polcie were recoving would be from a crime scene. Last time I checked police don't need permission to gather evidence from crime scenes.

Thw whole idea is you check what you find (at a crime scene)against the database, i don't see how this is anything like the police invading your home without permission. It's closer to the idea of CCTV placing you at a scene than anything else. It's something to generate leads.

If they found your DNA they still have to put forward reasonable cause to then seatch your home, or pursue phone records - it's the start not the end of investigation. (Although obviously DNA in certain, er, sensitive areas can be a massive part of a case in things like rape cases)

It's also worth pointing out that the info on the database is pretty much enough to provide ID not anything else, that is to say they can't say how likely you are to get cancer or anything like that with the level of detail held on the database.
The idea of running checks to find out who was around in big batches isn't that far away - infact the thing that makes most difficult at present is the lack of a database to check against.

Also no-one is really saying it's gonig to make a massive impact on crime statistics but rather that it would be a useful tool, but crtically something that could really help with the 'higher end' crimes (violent crimes in the main)