The UK already has a blossoming love affair with using technology to police its society, so it probably was only a matter of time before someone suggested going that crucial step further – put everybody’s DNA on one giant database.
From surveillance cameras in neighbourhoods and town centres to dissuade street crime (despite the fact that crime has not reduced at all), through similar devices on highways to track car number plates, to biometric ID cards for everyone entering or leaving the country, this is now a great country for the companies hawking such systems to the whip crackers.
In fairness, the idea wasn’t put forward by the government itself, but by an appeal court judge, Lord Justice Sedley. And this is at a time when it has been reported that a record is added to the current police DNA database at a rate of one every 45 seconds, and there are plans afoot to DNA profile people charged with minor offences such as littering and speeding.
Leaving aside the practical issues of who would have access to this information, and under what circumstances, you are left with the disturbing feeling that policing in the 21st Century is using the possibilities presented by technology and science to create a society where everyone is, by implication, being assessed for criminality from birth.
You probably won’t turn out to be a serious law breaker, but just in case you do the state will have assembled the information to identify you from millions of others, to trace your movements in a growing number of ways, and perhaps to monitor your communications too.
The civil libertarians, bless them, will argue that it takes only a re-definition of the nature of crime to change this type of society from one tracking hardcore criminals for everyone’s benefit to one where having the wrong political opinions or saying the wrong thing can get you into trouble.
Here’s an equally large objection. You create a database to stop crime by creating a huge target for exactly the same criminals. Remember, the criminals of the near future won’t necessarily look and behave exactly as do the majority of today’s criminals. There is plenty of evidence that they are already acquiring the resources, skills, organisation, and connections to power in parts of the world that would never have never previously presented a threat to UK citizens. The database itself would become a new vulnerability, ripe for attack.
It is sure that some crimes would be solved by creating a universal database of DNA, but it’s probably also true that some crimes would be solved just by reforming policing. More likely, such a creation would just mandate the persecution of ordinary citizens for minor offences (you haven’t paid a speeding fine so you will be threatened with DNA blacklisting), while anyone not on the database (7 billion foreigners for a start) would acquire criminal currency.
The suspects should not be citizens, even if a minority of them go on to commit crimes. The suspects should be criminals that can’t be profiled because they don’t live in the UK, or have the means to avoid appearing on the database. They are people who will not be dissuaded by a mere database because they already identify themselves as criminals and know how to protect themselves. Knowing who they are is not the problem. As ever, it is knowing how to stop them.