Privacy matters

Posted by on 10 April 2013

“Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence”.

So says Article 8 of the Human Rights Act, which protects us all against heavy-handed state surveillance and intrusion. The right to privacy is far from absolute, though, and it’s often one of the first casualties when fundamental freedoms are dismantled in the name of tackling crime or terrorism.

It’s 18 years today since the UK’s DNA database was launched. It was a world first; hailed by the then Home Secretary Michael Howard as the biggest breakthrough in crime-fighting since fingerprints.

Initially DNA taken was destroyed if suspects were acquitted. But after 2001 DNA was retained indefinitely. And in 2003 the law was changed to allow DNA to be taken upon arrest – rather than charge – for any “recordable” offence, which covers all that could result in at least one year’s imprisonment as well as many minor offences – such as being drunk in public. With around 5million DNA profiles, it’s the largest database per capita in the world.

Of course DNA evidence can play an important role in the detection and prevention of crime – and in bringing criminals to justice and clearing the innocent. But this blanket policy has meant that hundreds of thousands of innocent people, including thousands of children, have had their data permanently retained. The results have been highly discriminatory. Between half and three quarters of young black men have had their DNA stored – simply because of the higher number of arrests of black people per head of population.

A breakthrough came in 2008 in S and Marper v UK, in which Liberty intervened. The European Court of Human Rights held that indefinite indiscriminate retention was a breach of Article 8. The Labour Government responded by passing legislation reducing the period that innocents’ DNA could be retained – but it was never brought into force.

Progress followed when the newly-elected Coalition Government included reforms in the ambitiously-titled Protection of Freedoms Act, given Royal Assent last May. Under the new system, DNA and fingerprints of those arrested or charged – but not convicted – must be destroyed. Destruction of innocents’ DNA samples and profiles is now underway. By March 19 this year forensic laboratories had destroyed 453,000 DNA samples, and the National DNA Database had destroyed 504,000 digital DNA profiles. Such progress is welcome but the Act also contains concerning exceptions allowing for data belonging to innocent people to be retained for extended and even indefinite periods.

Furthermore, the same Coalition is now also responsible for the revival of the Snoopers’ Charter, which would extend the collection and storage of “communications data” – records of email, text and phonecalls – for the entire population. Such information can build up an incredibly intimate picture of you – which is why we’re campaigning hard against the Draft Communications Data Bill .

That the Government is still pursuing such invasive proposals is a reminder that our privacy is never completely safe in the state’s hands. Ministers would do well to remember that privacy matters to British people – last year a Liberty-YouGov poll revealed that 73 per cent of those questioned don’t trust the Government to protect their private information online – and that we’re a nation of citizens – not suspects.