Leading article: Our right to privacy, unless guilty of a crime

Thursday 28 February 2008 01:00 GMT

Yesterday, the first shots were fired in a battle that will ultimately determine whether we in Britain are innocent until proven guilty, as we like to imagine, or whether we are a nation of suspects. Two British men have argued before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg that the decision by the UK police to retain their DNA on a national database, despite the fact that they are entirely innocent of any crime, is a breach of their right to privacy. But this case is about much more than the rights of two men. It concerns the liberty of us all.

Since a change in the law in 2001, the police have been routinely fingerprinting and taking DNA samples from everyone they arrest - regardless of age, the seriousness of the alleged offence, or even whether the suspect is subsequently convicted. The result is that the police have collected some 4.5 million profiles and Britain has the largest per capita DNA database in the world. Ethnic minorities are vastly over-represented in its records. It is estimated that the DNA of some 40 per cent of the black male UK population is contained on the database.

No one would dispute that forensic DNA technology has an important role to play in crime prevention and clear-up. Some recent high-profile cases over the past two weeks have been ample evidence of that. The case against Steve Wright, who murdered five women in Suffolk, and Mark Dixie, who killed Sally Anne Bowman in Surrey, were both bolstered considerably by DNA evidence. It is reasonable that the DNA of convicted criminals should be retained by the police for future reference.

But the state has no right whatsoever to hold the information of the innocent. Nor should they be allowed to retain the DNA records of children convicted of a crime after they reach adulthood. In the name of making us safer, the police have decided that we are all potential suspects and that they have the right to hold the DNA of anyone they see fit. It is an outrageous infringement on our privacy.

The two plaintiffs in Strasbourg have a powerful case. Yet what is truly staggering is that, far from conceding that they have gone too far, the police are calling for an extension of the database to cover the entire population. The officer who led the Sally Anne Bowman murder investigation claims that a universal database would have enabled the police to catch Dixie "within 24 hours". Yet it is hard not to detect a desire for an easier life behind such lobbying. It is instructive to examine the case of another murderer convicted this week. Levi Bellfield was reported to the police 93 times for offences ranging from indecent assault to obscene phone calls, yet was not arrested until he had killed twice. Rather than lobbying for yet more rights to demand our DNA, the police should be concentrating on doing their existing job better.

It is a small mercy that the Home Office claimed last weekend that it has no plans to introduce a universal database. The enthusiasm of Tony Blair for such a scheme, thankfully, does not seem to have survived his departure from office. But that does not alter the fact that ministers and MPs alike have turned a blind eye to the massive and unjustified growth of the database.

Last month, Gordon Brown ordered one of his trademark reviews into the scheme. But that will not report until next year. And the privacy of our own biometric information is not an issue that can be kicked into the long grass. Until our political representatives begin to demand that the police end their practice of harvesting DNA samples at will, their claims to be upholding our liberty deserve to be met with a contemptuous laugh.

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