European Court Rules that British DNA Databases Violate Privacy

|

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that British police effort to collect and retain DNA information from people not convicted of any crime violates their privacy rights as guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights.

http://www.virginmedia.com/microsites/technology/slideshow/vm-tech-gallery/civilliberties/img_5.jpg

As the Associated Press reports:

Europe's top human rights court Thursday struck down a British law that allows the government to store DNA and fingerprints from people with no criminal record — a landmark decision that could force Britain to destroy nearly 1 million samples on its database.

Rights groups say the ruling could have even wider implications for the storage of other sensitive and personal data.

The case originated when British police refused to destroy DNA samples of two Britons whose criminal cases were dropped.

The European Court of Human Rights' ruled unanimously that keeping DNA samples and fingerprints was in violation of people's right to a private life — a protection under the Human Rights Convention to which the United Kingdom is a signatory. It also criticized Britain's use of "blanket and indiscriminate" storage.

Britain cannot appeal the ruling. It has until March to submit plans for destroying samples or to make a case for why some should be kept. Many European countries allow for temporary storage of DNA in sex crimes or other offenses but samples are usually destroyed after the cases are closed…

Britain has one of the world's largest DNA databases with more than 4.5 million samples, usually collected with a cheek swab.

In England and Wales, more than 850,000 DNA samples from people with no criminal record are stored on a national database. Samples have come from anyone who has been arrested, regardless whether they were charged, convicted or acquitted. Even the DNA of crime victims has been stored on occasion.

Privacy International said the ruling provides a benchmark for collecting data from innocent people — a ruling that could challenge Britain's plans for a database containing DNA samples of children, for a national identity register and for storing sensitive personal information such as financial or health details.

"The entire legal underpinning of Britain's surveillance state has now collapsed," said Simon Davies with Privacy International.

DNA databases are also expanding in the United States, with many states collecting and retaining DNA information from all arrestees. reason reporting on DNA databases and privacy here and here

Advertisement

NEXT: BBC: Six Shot at New Delhi Airport

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Hey the EU is actually good for something.

    I’m curious how the British public is going to react though. Not so much about the ruling, but about being subject to an EU court.

  2. John doesn’t care.

  3. 19th c.: HM Royal Navy commands enlisted men to swab the decks.
    21st c.: ECHR decks the swabs.

  4. If England doesn’t . . . does that count as civil war?

  5. I have a cunning plan.

  6. Cool. Chance of the US adopting similar: less than joe retracting any statement and suddenly joining the Constitution Party.

    So, we’re still fucked.

  7. Other Matt-

    Oh, if Joe was a pianist, he would be Baldwin’s baladeer.

  8. A good example of how “centralization” is not necessarily a bad thing from a libertarian perspective if the centralized authority is charged with checking ‘lower’ government power. You see the same thing with the Supreme Court and the Incorporation Doctrine. The problem is when the centralization amounts to an increase in governmental power that can be exercised over individuals (which for the most part both the EU and the Federal government are).

  9. Sigh. My cunning plan is this: Through the clever combination of nanotechnology, molecular biology, and mathematics, provide the means to individuals to encrypt their DNA.

    Problem solved!

  10. This ruling still allows for keeping the DNA from convicted violent felons after they get paroled or otherwise released. (Which is fine with me.)

    On an exoneration, if the felon turns out not to be a felon, I assume they’ll get their DNA trail expunged along with their bogus criminal record, yes? I think the same should apply for pardoned felons (who’ve presumably reformed).

  11. Hey the EU is actually good for something.

    I’m curious how the British public is going to react though. Not so much about the ruling, but about being subject to an EU court.

    For what it’s worth, the court is part of the Council of Europe, not the EU.

  12. EJM-

    True, but the distinction is increasingly pro forma only, and the next round of integration is likely to either bring the ECHR under EU purview or create an equivalent EU court that will assume the ECHR’s role.

  13. PL,
    Does your cunning plan include a cunning hat?

  14. I have a cunning plan.

    A plan so cunning you could brush your teeth with it?

  15. Certainly. I recognize no distinction between Baldrick and Jayne Cobb. In fact, the casts of Firefly and Black Adder are interchangeable. . .well, except in attractiveness.

  16. So if someone’s arrested and they get your name, height, weight, age, address, photograph, fingerprints and whatever else, and keep that on file forever, that’s all OK, but DNA violates privacy? Even though the government knowing your DNA has probably the fewest consequences in everyday life (at the moment)? Seems like an odd place to draw the line.

  17. What are you talking about, Other Matt? joe kicked all your asses with his hands tied and his pants down. He disintegrated your arguments into tiny granules of meme. He was right, and we know this because, when all was said and done, he was still utterly convinced of his rightness. Blessed be his name.

  18. tiny granules of meme

    nanotechnology

  19. He disintegrated your arguments into tiny granules of meme.

    Obviously. He is the great and powerful joe, kicking asses across the internet and pwning all who dare point out he’s an idiot.

  20. joe kicked all your asses with his hands tied and his pants down.

    joe wears a kilt – even joe can’t kick with his pants down…

  21. Britain cannot appeal the ruling.

    Actually, they could assert their sovereignty and tell the court to fuck off. Dunno if that’s considered “appealing a ruling”.

    Not defending the practice of keeping DNA samples of people not convicted of a crime, BTW, just pointing out how it’s also a bad idea to join an organization that can override your country’s laws and legal system with no recourse.

    And how Britain really ought to get themselves a Constitution so kleptocratic mob rule (aka “democracy”) has some restraining counterweight.

  22. Eh. I have a hard time getting worked up either way on the centralism debate. Ultimately, I think large scale decentralization would probably be the most effective strategy, simply because more governments in one geographic area means more competition, which means less shitty laws. On the other hand, when the precedent for centralization has already largely been set (as in the United States, though I don’t really know enough about the EU to comment), then a centralized government can provide a check against tyranny at the local level. I think it’s also important to remember that the distinction is purely strategic. It’s not like a local government is somehow morally superior to a far away one; it’s just easier to fight.

  23. “And how Britain really ought to get themselves a Constitution so kleptocratic mob rule (aka “democracy”) has some restraining counterweight.”

    Hasn’t worked so well on this side of the pond.

  24. I have a plan that’s so cunning, you could stick a tail on it and call it a weasel:

    I’m going to pay to have my genome sequenced, then copyright it. I won’t give the police permission to copy any part of it.

  25. the innominate one, that would be brilliant except the federal government has, you know, unfair double standards.

  26. no-name,

    They can just repossess your genome through eminent domain.

  27. Hasn’t worked so well on this side of the pond.

    Agreed, but it’s worked better than having nothing at all.

  28. But fingerprints and mugshots are okay?

  29. “Agreed, but it’s worked better than having nothing at all.”

    That’s purely speculative.

  30. Damn, Other Matt has a man-crush on joe…

  31. prolefeed | December 4, 2008, 8:39pm | #

    it’s also a bad idea to join an organization that can override your country’s laws and legal system with no recourse.

    You mean like a state in the United States joining the, erm, United States?… If anything, the EU has far less power over the UK than the federal US government has over state governments. It’s all quid pro quo.

  32. Shouldn’t it be a rule that joe actually has to say something, and that this “something” has to be stupid, before he gets flamed? The constant thread-jacking by stalkers is getting old.

  33. hear, hear, David Ross.

  34. PapayaSF et al,

    So if someone’s arrested and they get your name, height, weight, age, address, photograph, fingerprints and whatever else, and keep that on file forever, that’s all OK, but DNA violates privacy? Even though the government knowing your DNA has probably the fewest consequences in everyday life (at the moment)? Seems like an odd place to draw the line.

    The article above implies that fingerprints will also be destroyed:

    Europe’s top human rights court Thursday struck down a British law that allows the government to store DNA and fingerprints from people with no criminal record – a landmark decision that could force Britain to destroy nearly 1 million samples on its database.

    Your point on mugshots still stands, though, unless:

    Rights groups say the ruling could have even wider implications for the storage of other sensitive and personal data.

    actually turns out to be true.

  35. “The entire legal underpinning of Britain’s surveillance state has now collapsed,” said Simon Davies with Privacy International.

    Can anybody explain this comment? Part of the issue with Britain as a surveillance state is the number of cameras the Brits have stuck to any stationary object. I don’t see how this ruling affects the ubiquity of the security cam. Am I missing something, or is he just delusional?

  36. a landmark decision that could force Britain to destroy nearly 1 million samples on its database.

    …don’t you mean “ask Britain to destroy” the samples?

    Does anybody here really think ATF is destroying records of background checks?

    They may destroy the obvious copies, but I’d bet large sums of money that the data will be retained on tape somewhere.

  37. I actually am against this ruling. Ignore the DNA science aspect of it. Look at the fingerprint aspect. If the cops arrest somebody in Britain (or the rest of Europe), but don’t convict them, they now have to throw out their fingerprints. Does that seem right? Imagine the number of murders left unsolved that could be if they had that information. It’s quite common to find a murderer or other major criminal because he was arrested once (and not convicted) for some minor offense in the past.

    Now, lets expand it back to DNA. DNA is no different than fingerprints in my mind; it’s merely a unique, scientific identifier of a particular individual.

    I predict a lot of unsolved murders, rapes, etc., in the UK from now on. Or, I guess, in Europe as a whole.

  38. This court has nothing tod do with the EU, idiots.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.