Leading article: Who wants to live in a 'surveillance society'?

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The Independent Online

In just a decade, Britain has built the biggest database of DNA information in the world. This is largely because all those arrested are now forced to submit their DNA, regardless of whether they are subsequently convicted. The result is that a substantial number of innocent people find themselves on the database.

Disappointingly, given recent attempts to eliminate prejudice in police ranks, a disproportionate number of these are black. DNA samples from a third of Afro-Caribbean men in England and Wales are now held. Even the man who created the database, Professor Alec Jeffreys, yesterday admitted that this is disturbing. One might expect that the Prime Minister would attempt to eliminate such obvious injustice. Instead, Mr Blair seems determined to create an even greater one, having indicated that he would like to see the DNA of every person in the country held on file.

The creation of this database was never debated in Parliament. The public has not been consulted. It is vital that there is impartial evaluation of this new type of policing and its implications. Mr Blair tries to shut down debate in his customary manner by pointing to the number of convictions DNA evidence has helped to bring about. But it is outrageous to argue that, on the basis of a few successes, we should all surrender our DNA information. This is as ludicrous as arguing that because electronic tagging has kept some prisoners from reoffending, the whole nation should be tagged.

The police, of course, want the database extended. They believe it will make their lives easier - and indeed it might. Similarly, it is unsurprising the Government is keen. Always dazzled by the promises of new technology, it remains pathetically in thrall to populist hysteria over crime. The database brings these two obsessions together perfectly.

The defenders of the technology argue that it is quick, exact and has the potential deliver stunning results with little inconvenience. This is naive. Consider the cost of creating and maintaining such a huge database. This Government has a lamentable record for mishandling large technology projects, from the disastrous passports computer to the tax-credits fiasco. Consider too the dangers. We are told, as always, that those who have done nothing wrong have nothing to fear. But what about corrupt policing, or hackers? Even if DNA technology is infallible, what is to stop samples being switched, or DNA planted? Indeed, it is the apparent exactitude of the technology that makes it so potentially hazardous for the criminal justice system.

Bear in mind that DNA technology is in its infancy. Some scientists believe it has the potential to reveal our genetic susceptibility to illness. This would be sensitive and personal information. It would certainly not belong in the hands of the police. And yet Mr Blair would have each of us submit samples tomorrow.

The rapid advance of the DNA database reflects a more general illiberal shift in our society. Disturbingly, we have more CCTV cameras than any other country. And the Government is determined to force us to carry biometric ID cards. As the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, points out today, we are witnessing the creation of a "surveillance society".

Those careless of our civil liberties dismiss such concerns as conspiracy theories. Yet this is not an argument springing from paranoia. There needs to be more intense debate about the points raised by Mr Thomas. Authorities such as the police and government cannot be relied upon to recognise the limits of their control over the citizenry. These are fundamental issues of human rights and civil liberties. They should not be tossed away on a tide of political fashion.

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