Tuesday, February 28, 2006


A process of elimination

Monday's Dispatches on C4 made me so cross I had to step into the kitchen and shout angrily for several minutes to no-one in particular.

In particular, the programme featured a law student who, at the age of 15, had been wrongly arrested on suspicion of criminal damage. He was never charged or cautioned, but nonetheless his fingerprints and DNA were recorded and stored on national databases.

Months later, he was baffled to receive a call from the police, who questioned him on suspicion of mail theft on the basis of fingerprints on letters recovered from the scene of the crime. It was clear from their questioning that they thought they had got their man, and viewed him as their prime suspect purely because he was on the database - purely because he had been arrested on suspicion of committing a crime before - indeed, purely because he fitted the police's idea of the kind of person they were looking for.

It turns out that his fingerprints were on the letters - because they were Christmas cards that he himself had sent.

I think this is a perfect example of the type of lazy policing and misuse of technology that we can expect to see in the future. Why waste police time trying to round up witnesses when you can just consult a database? Even better if it can tell you the sort of person you're looking for.

There is now a serious problem facing British society - that there is a huge amount of data being collected by police and Government agencies, with no real restrictions on how it is stored or how it is used. Very soon, a national database of vehicle movements in the UK will be in place, and it is highly likely that within the next decade facial recognition technologies will be linked in with the security camera system to generate a database of the movement of individuals. The problem is that as the data accumulates, it becomes easier to put in certain criteria and come out with a person, or a list of people - members of Greenpeace who have driven past John Prescott's house, for example - and it's just as easy to do that for political purposes as law-enforcement ones.

A common reaction to this sort of threat is to demand that the collection of data stops altogether - however, this is an anti-progress sentiment that undermines potential positive uses of such data to protect citizens - for example, in allowing a suspect to prove that they were elsewhere at the time of a crime of which they are accused.

What I would like to propose is an independent body, not affiliated to the police or security establishment, to hold all data collected by the state on its citizens in order to prevent its abuse. Access to the data would be strictly controlled; citizens would, within reason, be granted access to their own data, and existing DPA and FOIA principles would be respected, but outside agencies would only be allowed to use the data with the permission of a judge (as is already the case with wiretap surveillance) and would not be permitted to arrest citizens purely on the basis of such data, except in extraordinary circumstances.

Like it or not, technology is now changing our democracy more than any innovation of the last 100 years. Liberals in Britain need to be pushing for it to be adopted responsibly, or our centuries-old tradition of individual liberties threatens to be swallowed up in the name of progress and security.

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