It’s an ‘optional’ kind of civil rights violation December 28, 2007Posted by franklittle in Bioethics, Ethics, Ireland, Judiciary, Technology.
The Irish Times has an interesting piece today (Sub required) with Justice Minister Brian Lenihan laying out his priorities for the year to come in an interview with former left-wing revolutionary turned Irish Times Legal Affairs correspondent Carol Coulter. The interview flags up the forthcoming Immigration and Residence Bill and points to the benefits this will have in the area of human trafficking, two items I intend to return to in coming weeks as it happens. But it is the proposed DNA database, which is dealt with at the very end of the article that struck me:
“However, he said legislation on a DNA database was coming. “Admissions are declining as a source of convictions. Science will play a greater role. I will be bringing proposals on a DNA database to Government. “People who are convicted will have their DNA taken. But I think there is a reason for a much broader database – not on a compulsory basis, but we could promote people voluntarily giving DNA. That could exclude people who innocently left traces at a scene.””
Little has been heard of this proposal since last August when the Irish Human Rights Commission (IHRC) issued its observations on the Criminal Justice (Forensic Sampling and Evidence) Bill 2007, which aims to establish just such a database. The IHRC makes clear its concerns about the human rights implications of such a database not being understood by the wider public and points to a lack of safeguards in the existing legislation. Two aspects of the legislation in particular terrified the Hell out of me when I first read it.
The first was that DNA samples provided would be held indefinitely. So, hypothetically, I decide in the interests of assisting the Gardaí to provide my DNA to rule me out as a suspect in a case where a rape took place at a party I attended. It saves the police time in considering me a suspect and from my point of view eliminates me as a suspect saving me time and grief. Yet though I gave my DNA for this specific reason, my DNA can be stored indefinitely. With increased EU level legislation around the sharing of data held by police and security forces such as the proposals on air passenger data retention, it is likely that at some point my DNA could be transferred to police forces outside of this jurisdiction if they felt it was necessary. Indefinite retention of DNA samples is not the international or European norm. And if, by the way, I choose to exert my right not to give a sample, does this make me more of a suspect? One assumes it does in practice whatever about in legal theory. Yet rights not exercised can fade away, overtaken by the ‘practice’ on the ground.
The second is that under the Bill the Forensic Science Laboratory can out-source or delegate responsibilities around the creation of the database to other parties inside or outside the state. In theory my DNA in the above case could be sampled by a person working for a private company hired by the Gardaí to carry out the taking of samples, sent to another private company who carry out the analysis and then stored with another private company who are responsible for the storage. There’s just no end to the gravy train for private companies being fattened up with the people’s money. Would these private companies be most concerned with ensuring my rights are protected or with maximising their profits by cutting corners? I think history can answer that for me.
And even if the proper safeguards are in place, what price incompetence? In November the British lost two computer discs with the personal details of every family with a child under the age of 16, containing the bank account and insurance details of a mere 25 million people. What price corruption? As we reported here in August Gardaí and other government officials routinely access confidential information which ends up in the hands of insurance companies, private investigators and the media.
The DNA database debate will, in all likelihood, be one that is ill-informed and hysterical in much the same way as the one on Anti Social Behaviour Orders, on which I remember no less a luminary than Gerry Ryan giving his two cents arguing that anyone opposed to them was supporting anti-social behaviour. But the IHRC, who are not opposing the idea of such a database, deserve to have their call for an informed debate heeded.