If the civil libertarians, the conspiracy theorists and the Conservatives had their way, Abdul Azad would probably never have been caught. Azad was convicted of a brutal stranger rape in Stafford in July 2005 after fragments of his skin were recovered from under his victim’s fingernails and yielded a DNA profile matching his record on the national database.
So begins an article by Sean O’Neill in today’s Times, entitled “Don’t take away the modern copper’s toolkit”. Apart from the interesting linking of civil libertarians, conspiracy theorists and Conservatives (nothing like giving away your political position in the first paragraph, eh?), the point O’Neill is making here is that DNA retention is crucial to solving crimes. As he goes on to say,
[Azad’s] DNA had been taken five months before the rape, when he was arrested and gave a DNA sample after police were called to a violent incident at his home in Birmingham.
Azad was, however, released without being charged. Under the current British rules his DNA was retained on the database and provided the crucial piece of evidence that would convict him of rape months later.
Under the DNA rules that exist in other countries and which opponents of the database want replicated here, however, Azad’s profile would have been expunged when he was released without charge for the domestic violence incident.
So, should we abandon plans to liberalise our DNA retention rules so that the DNA of those released without charge isn’t retained? O’Neill certainly thinks so, and uses Azad as a case to prove his point. But hang on a moment. The “violent incident” occurred only five months before the rape, so even under current proposals his DNA would still be on file. And, even if we do adopt the principle that those not convicted of a crime should not, as a matter of course, have their DNA retained at all, that doesn’t mean that there may not be occasions when – subject to correct judicial oversight – it might be appropriate. So Azad could well have still be caught by his DNA. O’Neill, though, appeals to an anecdote from the police to try and convince us otherwise:
The investigating officer in Azad’s case had no doubt of the value of retaining this innocent man’s DNA. “We would never have caught him had his DNA not already been on the database,” he said. “He didn’t even live locally so we had no intelligence leads either.”
Now, this might have been a useful excuse had Azad lived in London, or Edinburgh. But Stafford is less than 30 miles from the centre of Birmingham. Plenty of people commute further than that. And Birmingham is by far the largest population centre near Stafford. If a member of Stafford police thinks that Birmingham isn’t local, or doesn’t consider the possibility that a crime in Stafford might have been committed by a Brummie – well, words fail me! Far from demonstrating the need for DNA retention, this parochial copper’s comment provides strong support for a regionalised police force, or at least greater intelligence sharing between neighbouring forces.
Anyway, enough of Abdul Azad. O’Neill’s next target is those who try to tell us how bad the situation is:
The Human Genetics Commission also states as fact that more than 75 per cent of black men aged 18 to 35 are on the database. But that is a highly questionable claim, which it admits it has not researched and which seems to have its origins in statistical extrapolations by journalists in 2006.
The same voices that sow alarm over DNA also complain loudly about the spread of the “surveillance society”. They fret about the rising number of CCTV cameras, quoting the guesstimate of 4.2 million cameras as fact.
Well, these figures may or may not be accurate. But there’s one simple way to counter the accusations if they are not: Just tell us what the figures really are! After all, the Home Office must, surely, know (or, at least, have a good idea) how many young black men have their DNA on the database, or how many CCTV cameras there are. Or, if they really don’t know, then they are the ones with the power to find out. So come on, if you think that the figures are wrong, give us the right ones – it can’t be that hard, can it? Really? Oh.
Oh well, back to O’Neill, who now wants to defend the “Big Brother” database, or the “intercept modernisation programme” (IMP), to give it its proper name. Here’s another extract:
These battles being fought (and won) under the banner of liberty and privacy threaten to have serious consequences in terms of the ability of the police to investigate serious crime. If we curtail the use of DNA, slash the number of CCTV cameras and abandon the collation of phone and e-mail records then we are asking detectives to try to catch the most dangerous criminals with one hand tied behind their backs.
These are the three essential components of the 21st-century detective’s toolkit.
Well, it’s nice to see that he thinks the civil libertarians (and, presumably, by implication, the Conservatives and conspiracy theorists) are winning the battle. It’s not so nice to see that he thinks that DNA, CCTV and IMP are “the” three essential components of the detective’s toolkit. Apart from making me feel as if I’m in a Monty Python sketch, does he really think that these are the only essential components? What happened to forensics, witnesses, informers, suspect interrogation and all the other aspects of a criminal investigation? Are these no longer essential to a 21st century detective? Or is O’Neill guilty of overstating his case in an attempt to prop up a weak argument? I’ll let you decide. Meanwhile, let’s get back to DNA:
According to a new analysis of DNA samples taken in big cases in 2008-09, there were 46 rape cases and 23 killings in which DNA recovered from crime scenes did not match the profile of any individual who had a conviction.
Some of those 69 offenders were not on the database; others were, having been arrested but not charged, which made the police’s job in catching them much easier.
Again, this is vagueness presented as evidence. How many is “some”, and how many of the “others” were on the database? If you don’t know, this isn’t helping your case. If you do know, then why don’t you tell us? Never mind, let’s try CCTV again:
As for CCTV, there have been reports recently that the boom in street cameras does not help to solve crime. These claims leave murder squad detectives dumbfounded. One seasoned investigator told me recently: “I read these things open-mouthed and think, ‘Why does nobody ask me about this?’ Almost every case we have has CCTV material that gives us a breakthrough.”
Another nice anecdote, but again it’s one which doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. One case in which it didn’t give a breakthrough, for example, is that of Abdul Azad (remember him?), who managed to commit a rape in Stafford without being spotted on CCTV. Or maybe he was spotted, and it wasn’t really a case where DNA gave the breakthrough. Ah well. We can’t be right about everything. Let’s move on to the third of O’Neill’s holy trinity, the IMP database:
Finally there is the issue of logging phone calls and e-mails. Anyone who has sat in a Crown Court recently will be familiar with the evidential value of phone logs — massive spreadsheets drawn up to show the patterns of connection and communication between defendants accused of murder, terrorism, people trafficking, drug smuggling, kidnap and armed robbery.
Would police investigating the child abuse at Little Ted’s nursery in Plymouth have been able to trace the links between Vanessa George, Angela Allen and Colin Blanchard without access to records of her phone and computer activity?
The proposed Big Brother database is a way of centrally organising information to which the police already have access but which is currently held by Vodafone, Yahoo! and others. Yet we seem to mind less about personal detail held by the private sector.
Is it just me, or does anyone else get the impression from the first two of these three paragraphs that the system is actually working pretty well as it is? We don’t have a Big Brother database, and yet the police have managed to use phone and computer logs to put criminals, including high profile child abusers, behind bars. As O’Neill points out, the data is already being held by the various organisations which generate it. And he’s right that we don’t, on the whole, mind about the fact that it’s held by Vodafone, Yahoo! and others. But why don’t we mind? Well, it could be something to do with the fact that we know the system wouldn’t work without it. My phone company has to know who I’m calling, in order to connect me! They have to log those calls so that they can bill me. My ISP has to know where my emails are going so that they can route them there. And all of this information is available to the police when they need it – all they have to do is get a court order.
So why change the system? Why log it all centrally instead of just acquiring the relevant data when the police actually need it? O’Neill doesn’t answer that question, possibly because it’s never occurred to him to ask it. Or possibly because he’s aware that the answer would be unpalatable. Consider, for example, the security implications of a single, centralised store of data. At least where it is at the moment, if it gets leaked accidentally (or deliberately, or maliciously) then the organisation responsible for the leak or security failure can suffer real damage as a result. If Vodafone lose my data then I can switch to Orange. If Yahoo! gets! hacked! I can go to Hotmail. And in both cases, they can be prosecuted for the security breach which made the data loss possible. So there is a huge financial incentive to be secure, as the financial consequences of insecurity could be disastrous.
A government database, by contrast, has no such incentive. And the government’s record on data integrity is not exactly great, already. Why would anyone think that the data is better off being centralised, if they were aware of such considerations?
I don’t have a sensible answer to that, because I don’t think there is one. And that’s before we even go on to consider other problems with a centralised database, such as dealing with mission creep, the costs of operating it and the government’s lamentable record of misunderstanding how the Internet works. But here’s a final thought, and I’ll leave you to do the research yourselves if you’re so inclined. The UK has the largest DNA database in the world. But does the UK have the best clear-up and/or conviction rates for major crimes such as murder, rape and terrorist offences? If you feel like answering that question, Google is over there….