...a blog by Richard Flowers

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Day 2438: DNA? Do Not Ask!



Oh dear, one of our very senior appeal court judges has GONE OFF HIS CHUMP and suggested that the entire nation should be DNA fingerprinted.

Apparently Lord Justice Sedley's idea is that there are LOTS of INNOCENT people who have nevertheless been arrested and their DNA taken… and it is STILL BEING KEPT. Treating innocent people like criminals is NOT FAIR. So, the solution is obvious: ALL OTHER innocent people should be treated like criminals too! Er, hang on…

This, however, is not even an ORIGINAL form of LUNACY. The Inventor of DNA fingerprinting, Mad Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys was saying almost exactly the same thing five years ago.

Sometimes I despair of you people, you know. Listening to the The Today Programme in the morning, as they discuss blithely handing over the VERY STUFF OF YOUR LIVES to the Government does the nation RISE IN ANGER? No, the listeners are too busy complaining about the professor who said that walking dogs though conservation areas is disturbing the birds. I mean never mind the evidence, they LIKE walking their dogs wherever they want.

Well here is the NEWS: with the new DNA database, the government will be able to take a couple of swabs and find out EXACTLY who has been letting Fido off the leash near the Great Crested Frog-stranger's nest!

This database would be an absolute GIFT to the spooks of MI5: one quick trip round any meeting place with a vacuum cleaner and BINGO a whole new list of SUBVERSIVES. Or church-goers. Or Conservatory activists. Whoever the Labour decide they want to track this week. For your own good, of course.

And after all, the Government would never ever do anything BAAAAAD with your personal private data, would they. Like selling motorists' DVLA data to businesses including people who have been sent to gaol for intimidating motorist. Oh, wait. They DID!

But even if you are not SUSPICIOUS of the SINISTER uses to which your DNA could be put, the database would still be worth its weight in GOLD to businesses with an interest in your information. The insurance companies alone would pay through the nose for it, and just imagine the banks deciding your mortgage repayments based on your genetic profile: "I'm Sorry Mr Dome, but we have to charge you double the interest because your DNA says you might pack your trunk and run away to the circus!"

Still, at least it would help the police to issue FIXED PENALTY FINES – they could track you down by scraping your DNA out of the paintwork when you dent their panda car, should they ever mount the pavement, RUN YOU DOWN and want to CHARGE YOU for the privilege!

No, seriously.

DNA fingerprinting is not the MAGICAL way to solve all known crime.

Remember, just because your DNA is found at a crime scene that does not mean that you were the one there at the time the crime occurred. And that's without taking into account the possibility of accidental – or even deliberate – contamination of the scene with your DNA.

And then there is the possibility of you being identified wrongly as the owner of some DNA found by the police, a so-called FALSE POSITIVE.

Even ORDINARY fingerprinting is MUCH HARDER that most people recognise, relying on much hard work to match what are often smudged and partial prints. Collecting fragments of DNA from a crime scene is even harder, particularly if you want to use the more reliable tests which need longer strings of DNA.

And the tests do not produce an "image" of your entire genetic blueprint in the way that your fingerprint is your whole fingerprint. Instead they look at TEN SPECIAL SECTIONS of your DNA (they used to use six; in America they use thirteen) where you have one of an apparently randomly assigned bundle of base pairs. In these sections the DNA comes in short strings of the same sequence repeated several times.

To analyse it they put it in a special jelly and run electricity through it. The bundles with fewer repeated sequences are lighter so they get carried further up the jelly. The ones with more are heavier and do not go so far. That is how you get those stripy DNA pictures.

Because each of the bundles is relatively common (between 5% and 20% of people will share one for any given one of the DNA fragments used in the test) then they produce easily identified results. But because they are random, and (more importantly) because each fragment has a random bundle independently of all the others, then PROBABILITY tells us that the chances of having two people with the same stripy pattern in the jelly gets MULTIPLIED the more different fragments you include in the test.

In THEORY using as many test fragments as we do, there ought to be many billions of possible combinations, eliminating the chances of duplication.

But even so, the more people you add to the database, the greater the chances of getting a match by random bad luck.

You know, although I am sure that that has been thought of, isn’t the way that DNA is SUPPOSED TO WORK – you know, copying itself – going to make that MORE likely? There must be something to stop identical twins having the same DNA… even though I thought that was the POINT of being identical twins.

And once your name pops out of the police's DNA machine you are into the realm of proving that you WEREN'T there when the DNA evidence says that you were. And remember: denying it going to make you look even more suspicious!

Listening to the government's defence of its ever-growing DOSSIER of our DNA, we were told that we "Cannot put the Genie Back in the Bottle"; there was no going back – we must go forward.

Hmmm, catchy.

We could not go around taking INNOCENT people OFF the database… after all, what if they then committed a crime? We would not be able to catch them!

As Daddy Alex pointed out: "Innocent Until Proven Guilty" does NOT mean that the innocent are bound to be proved guilty EVENTUALLY.

So overall… why wasn't everyone on the telephone to Liberal Democrat Mr Clogg telling him to GET ON THE RADIO and DENOUNCE THIS MADNESS!


Jennie said...

Don't despair of me, Mr Heffalump! I was blogging about this very thing this morning too!

(ignore the soppy bit at the top; although it might interest you a little, actually, because Mister Mat tells me he met you once, and very fluffy you were too)

Jock Coats said...

A posting on its own worthy of a prize in the great Lib Dem blog-party giveaway!

David Matthewman said...

I'm not on the phone to Nick Clegg, because I'm honestly not sure where I stand on this one. I don't know whether I want the police to have DNA evidence on file for everyone or no one, but I really dislike the current situation, for exactly the reasons the judge gives.

HE Elsom said...

I think what Mr Sedley was saying was that if there is a DNA database at all, it is better for it to have everybody's DNA rather than just that of people the police don't like. As far as I can work out on my fingers, there are likely to be seven matches in the population of the UK for every DNA sample. If there is one match in the current database (because the other six haven't been taken yet), the police are likely to say "Aha, that's the crimimal." But it could be somebody who looked at a policeman funny last year who hasn't done anything really bad ever. Whereas if they have all the DNA in the country in the database, they will get seven matches and will have to work out which of the seven is most likely to be guilty.

I was particularly amused by the Labour minister who said there were civil liberty and ethical issues with Mr Sedley's idea (but not apparently with the idea of a database in itself).

Epicured said...

Stephen Sedley is not only nobody's fool, he is also a former member of the Communist Party (unusual for an Appeal Court Judge) and, in my opinion, very possibly One Of Us (L-Ds).

When he suggests that justice (meaning parity of treatment for the DNA-registered and non DNA-registered population) can only be achieved by everyone being on the list he knows full well that:
1. This exposes the very selectivity of the current list as 'those charged with an offence' form a nice discrete pool for the Police to concentrate their efforts on, and 2. That law enforcement agencies agree that 100% registration is unworkable.

Sedley has very cunningly exposed the current policy for what it is - a convenient way for the Police to gather data on 'dodgy' but unconvicted people and store it permanently. With this proposal the Police can no longer pretend that the security outweighs the prejudice - because the whole DNA population of Britain cannot be stored in way which allows secure and reliable processing. The case for returning data to non-charged people is now considerably strengthened by this 'falsifying' question.