6 Reasons never to give up your biometric data or DNA

Crime & Security, Systems thinking

1. It permits lazy policing

If you have someone’s record on file, you’re more likely to assume he’s a criminal. And if that DNA matches a sample which has been discovered during the investigation… well it’s jolly tempting to think that you might have your man.

A connected spate of lazy policing happened recently. Having a suspect reduces the search for other explanations and will lead to more evidence being found against the individual (eg no alibi) since we search to validate opinions more readily than we seek to refute them.

Additionally it leads to inquisitorial moments such as this example when the police asked – or is that threatened? – 4,000 men local to a murder to give their DNA ‘voluntarily’, but “if someone does refuse then each case will be reviewed on its own merits.

Now of course that’s also an argument to put EVERYONE on the DNA database instead… so read on, because you’ll like the bit about facial recognition.

2. It does not aim to reduce crime, only to make it easier to solve

The Home Office* website says that “the national DNA database is a key police intelligence tool as it helps to: quickly identify offenders, make earlier arrests, secure more convictions, provide critical investigative leads for police investigations.” Which is to say that police-work takes less time, and more people are convicted. This is jolly good (notwithstanding the ‘lazy policing’ observations above), but this is not the same as bringing the much more useful social benefit of reducing the amount of crime committed.

But could a DNA database reduce crime? Well there’s some deterrence for minor crimes, but bigger crimes are born of passionate intent, and the perpetrator only thinks of the consequences later, if he cares about them at all.

It’s early days with DNA, so let’s look at the promises of another great idea which was going to keep us all safe, only only the very slightest cost to our wallets and liberty, CCTV.

It’s been an utter fiasco: only 3 per cent of crimes were solved by CCTV. There’s no fear of CCTV. Why don’t people fear it? (They think) the cameras are not working.

Detective Chief Inspector Mick Neville, head of the Visual Images, Identifications and Detections Office at New Scotland Yard

  • Fewer than 1 crime in 30 is solved through CCTV
  • Dover council introduced CCTV in 1993. After 12 years, they found that burglary in the areas covered had halved, car crime was down 87 per cent, but public disorder and crimes of violence had almost trebled.
  • A study in Gillingham concluded that crime in the High Street had fallen by a third five years after CCTV was installed, while it was static in areas where there was no CCTV.
  • A study for the Home Office in 2004 examined 14 CCTV systems, and found that only one had really cut crime. That was in a car park. The others, they concluded “had no overall effect on crime.”
    Source: Independent.co.uk

So does CCTV reduce crime? Yes, but not by much. And on occasion, by removing the very human desire (even need) for a low-harm crime, it displaces it in into a more serious and socially harmful category. CCTV rarely works for the public benefit, even if judged solely on it’s ability to do its intended job.

*This conjures a completely different image in this teleworking age.

3. We do not know as much about DNA as we’d like to think we do

Not only are our ideas about the uniqueness of DNA false, but as the aforementioned discovery of a 6th nucleotide shows, we do not know what DNA is responsible for. There have been studies claiming correlations with depression, alcoholism, and homosexuality. We don’t have to look too far back in our history (uh oh), or too far in our future, to ponder what kind of rules well-meaning governments will abstract from that.

“We found that 98% of people with this nucleotide on this gene are disposed to violent crime, Sir.”

— “Really? That’s more evidence that we had in Guantanamo! Round ’em up!”

“And how about this one for alcoholism, Sir?”

— “Three compulsory group sessions per year for awareness training and evaluation!”

4. If they lose it, you can’t request a new PIN

This one’s quite simple. If someone leaves your bank data on a train you can change your PIN number and your bank details can be assigned new random numbers. This is embarrassing and potentially very expensive, but easily fixed.

(As an aside on this same topic, have you noticed how many CCTV cameras film you when you tap in your PIN? Isn’t that therefore open to massive abuse? Because now we have a lot of valid data (correct PIN numbers) which are easily accessed and abused if the intent is there.)

But if they lost your biometric data (retina scans, fingerprints etc) or DNA… well, you can’t change that. If someone can use your genetic and biometric information to pretend to be you, it’s a lot harder to deny. It may seem far fetched to suggest the criminals might leave fake samples around (though they have); but if DNA is too abstract and distant, think on biometrics. We now store and use biometric data in more places, to get in to anything from laptops to buildings. We will most likely be using it more as the technology to do so gets cheaper, because it appears to be more secure. After all, it’s linked directly to me – what could be more unique than my own fingerprint?

There is a logical fallacy here, much like the same one which bought us the arms race. Security can be increased in any number of ways, and the ability to hack that security will increase to compensate. But it is true that better technology can create better security. This is true, but only whilst good, trustworthy people who have access to the technology. People like the police, for example, or the government, who we know never lie or try to cover things up.

So what are we laying on the line for convenience in security? Many measures can be taken to increase security without the need to go biometric.

5. It is financially expensive for the benefits it brings

The social benefits are minimal. But what does it cost? Perhaps the minimal benefits might be worth it.

There are over 4.2 million CCTVs in the UK. Unfortunately I can not find any information about how many of these belong to the government, but it is a lot of them, and public sector ones alone cost billions to install and operate.

As for biometric ID, not only will it cost individuals £72, but on top of that it costs us £5.4 billion (which is more than the ENTIRE POLICE FORCE costs for 1 year). And that’s the conservative estimate. Other studies put it at more like £15-20 billion (which is about the same as the police, the judiciary, prisons, and public safety).

6. It drives a wedge between people and authority, making the problem of security harder to solve

It is the obligation of any government to protect the liberty of its citizens. It should be protecting us from the very laws it is making. Instead, it is alienating us, treating us all as suspects. We should not need to be authorised to exist. We should not need to worry for our safety and our legality if we protest peacefully. We should not need to worry who can track us as we walk through a town.

If you treat someone like a prisoner, they will behave like a prisoner. Resentment will increase against authority, and there will be less cooperation.

The government is collecting the biometric facial data of everyone who applies for a passport. They also have a huge digital CCTV network. Programmers are developing better and better facial recognition systems. How long before this is all tied together? They know who you are, where you are, and can watch what you’re doing. They can watch you protest, and if they don’t like you, they can act. Even against people of conscience who dare to speak up.

Is the government going to come along in the night and round us all up? Well, not yet, we hope. But read this description of plans for a database once upon a time:

The aim is to centralize and analyze data on people aged 13 or above who are active in politics or labor unions, who play a significant institutional, economic, social or religious role, or who are “likely to breach public order.”

The information that can be collected includes addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, physical appearance, behavioral traits, fiscal and financial records, and details about people who have personal ties with the subject.

Nazi Germany? North Korea? China? McCarthy America? Nope. This is the Edvige database from current day France.

Why do they do this? Because they want to protect their citizens, and serve them more efficiently and effectively. So this is not an abstraction into a dark distopian future, nor does it require an act of malice, nor a grand conspiracy. If we allow it to happen, it will be because we have slowly, bit by bit, handed over our liberties for the false promise of greater security.

The nightmares of governments turning nasty seem distant. But it happens. More often than we’d like to think, far more quickly than we expect, and yet far too slowly for us to notice it happening.

I’m not suggesting that Great Britain is going fascist, but why put in place a structure which would make the slide into oppression so very, very easy? Why put in place a structure which is of negligible use to a free society, and terrifying to a suppressed one?

Other countries may use ID cards and biometrics more and more, making it seem inevitable. They may start collecting data from people who travel there, and they may pressure us into having biometric documents, but this is Great Britain. We have long been a free country. Millions of us have gone to war to fight and kill to protect the liberty we take for granted, and millions of Britons have given their lives to give you your freedom today. A freedom many of us seem so willing to give up. Were they wrong to fight and die for this? Or have we just become acclimatised to a culture of powerful governments?

Using biometrics and DNA erodes our liberty, freedom of movement, freedom of protest, right to privacy, and right to security. The small amount of crime we have does not justify gambling these hard fought for rights.

We can increase cooperation with authority by not treating us all as prisoners and suspects, and can increase security without using biometric data.

We can, today, make a simple decision that will save us money, increase our security, preserve our liberty, and bring government and the people it serves closer together. We can, if we so wish, say that biometrics will never be a compulsory part of a government issued document, nor stored longer than is absolutely necessary to serve justice.

I am currently running to be an MEP in the South West. If you like what you read, please text  EDDOW01 to 86837 to show your support. Your votes will make a huge difference to my ability to bring in the future that you would like to see, and steer us away from the future you do not want.

Ed Dowding

Ed Dowding

Founder, strategist, writer, gadfly, TED talker, world-record holder, and (foolishly) reality-TV farmer. DOES: Innovation, Product, Advocacy THINKS: Regenerative Systems, Institution design, 300 year horizons

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