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Bioethics, statistics and the truth.

September 18, 2007

So a team of bioethicists at the Nuffield Council feel that the profiles of the innocent should not be retained on the DNA database. The Home Office response? Reel off a few statistics – they’re not accurate of course but who is going to check? Not the BBC or the Guardian. Technoscream does their job for them. This is the place for information you can trust.

Today’s report ‘The forensic use of bioinformation: ethical issues’ is a detailed study, and serves as an excellent guide to the many ethical and policy issues surrounding the database. The initial Home Office response, which is to quote statistics relating to the crimes apparently solved (note that the numbers refer to linkage of samples as opposed to convictions) is fairly predictable. Unfortunately they are also wrong. The statistics are taken directly from page 36 of their own report, linked previously on technoscream, and for the most part are accurately quoted. However, the number of crimes involved, which is fairly crucial, is actually 4000 rather than the 14000 quoted on the website of the BBC and the Guardian. Assuming that this is a misquote by the Home Office rather than the two journalists it does highlight the benefit of checking the facts. Remember this next time you hear an argument about the relative merits of amateur and professional content providers.

So one-nil to the bloggers. But the more important debate relates to the struggle between the technostate and the ethical and political arguments ranged against it. It is de rigeur for any technological development on this scale to bring a bioethicist on board at some stage, and there are plenty of people producing reports such as this; although not always of such a high quality. It has become a growing sub-industry within academia. There is definitely a danger of the inclusion of a bioethics angle adding a veneer of respectability and responsibility, much like the meaningless ‘carbon offsetting’ doing the rounds at the moment.

So will reports such as this have any impact? The answer probably lies with you and me.

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DNA Nation. Only 56 million to go…

September 15, 2007

Should all UK citizens be on the DNA database? This is the recently voiced opinion of senior judge Lord Justice Sedley who thinks it would solve the racially biased nature of the present system. Destroying the database would do the same thing of course, but the noble Lord doesn’t seem to have considered that option.

To many (I would hope, most) people this brings up nightmarish visions of some Orwellian dystopia. But why is it that it raises so little controversy in this country? We seem to have a particular capacity for sleepwalking towards a citizen-state relationship that has little regard for the individual. As always with this approach (cf. cctv) it is the thin end of a very large wedge. Our current leaders stress that they have no plans to follow the Lord’s advice. But nor do they have any plans to halt the relentless creep of this technology to cover an increasing proportion of our society. Already it has the DNA record of over 4 million citizens – the largest in the world.

The gradual and insidious expansion of these powers can already be seen. Initially the database held information on those convicted, samples taken from anyone else had to be destroyed. Subsequent extension to police powers means that anybody arrested for a recordable offence now has their sample retained. Between April 2004 and March 2006 this resulted in 600,000 additional samples being obtained – equivalent to 1% of the UK population.

What about future governments – what plans will they have? The only thing we can confidently predict is that they will have the tools and framework (political and cultural complacency) to do pretty much what they choose.

Coincidentally, something else the UK leads the world in, is our success in ensuring that newborn children are given the heel prick blood test, with almost 100% coverage. This is in order to test for a small number of relatively rare conditions. It is also used for carrying out epidemiological studies, including routine monitoring for HIV antibodies in the population. The blood spots are stored on Guthrie cards, which apparently have excellent longevity potential – currently they are kept for ‘at least five years’. This is not to suggest that the current testing system represents some form of conspiracy. It simply highlights a potential future risk, which becomes ever more likely as technology improves – and society sleeps.

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TV Licence Authority. Auntie’s Enforcers.

September 15, 2007

What is it with these people? Could they be any more determined to pick a fight? I’m on my third threatening letter in as many months and await my visit from the ‘London South Enforcement Division’. A quick summary of the story so far:

June 2007 – first contact. A red bordered letter in a similarly styled envelope, lots of bold lettering etc. with a charming little section at the end about the possibility of a visit, which could entail a statement being taken in accordance with the ‘Police & Criminal Evidence Act 1984′. Nothing like getting a relationship off to a good start. I am now determined to drag this out as long as possible and cost them as much time and money as I can. It’s going to be tough though. All I have is too much time on my hands and a vague sense of persecution. Their weapons, paid with taxpayers’ money, are an office full of drones and machines endlessly spewing out these threats. Many have been down this road before me. Let the battle commence.

July 2007 – second letter. Nice big red caps this time. “Your details are being passed to our enforcement officers”. And what’s this?…”If you are continuing to watch..television programme[s]..” Note that the possibility that I wasn’t watching in the first place appears to be ruled out. Apparently I will be getting a visit soon. Good. I’ve been waiting.

August 2007 – third letter. Now I have an “OFFICIAL WARNING” (as opposed to the official vague and unconvincing threats that I previously received?), but this time they’ve dropped the red ink. It’s now in nice calm blue. They have obviously caught on that I’m not really that scared of colours. Where’s my visit? I’m assured that it’s definitely on the way soon, and my statement may be “the first step towards prosecution”..I’ll be “added to the National Enforcement Database” (oh no, they have a database – this must be like the sex offenders one, but probably worse) and so on. Can you imagine the meetings where they come up with this stuff? How many names did they consider before arriving at ‘National Enforcement Database’? It’s perfect really, each word carefully chosen to convey a sense of authority and menace and yet the whole is actually completely meaningless.

What strikes me as the really nice side of all this, is that this is the way our publicly funded tv network corresponds with the old and vulnerable, when the ‘database’ thinks they haven’t coughed up. Charming. I await my visit with anticipation. My statement is well and truly prepared.

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