Thu, 23 May 2013

1,136,000 DNA profiles and 6,341,000 samples gone, but stealth DNA database of everyone being planned

A total of 6,969,396 subject profiles were held on the National DNA Database (NDNAD) at 31 March 2012 according to the NDNAD Annual Report 2011-2012. Allowing for duplication, the number of individuals whose DNA profile were held on the database is estimated at 5,950,612. This includes 1,253,289 innocent individuals ('without a current recorded conviction whose profiles had been added to the National DNA Database by English and Welsh police forces'). This also includes children; new research by the Howard League for Penal Reform has found that officers in England and Wales took swabs from 53,973 boys and girls aged 17 or under just during 2011.

The table below lists how many DNA subject profiles were loaded per year and how many individuals succeeded in getting their DNA profiles deleted following the  'Exceptional Case Procedure' over the past ten years. It clearly shows how easy it is for the police to grow the NDNAD, but how hard it has been for anyone to get off it.

  2002-2003 2003-2004 2004-2005 2005-2006 2006-2007 2007-2008 2008-2009 2009-2010 2010-2011 2011-2012
DNA profiles of individuals added 488,519 475,297 521,118 715,145 722,475 591,029 580,803 540,313 474,193 398,845
DNA profiles deleted (Exceptional Case Procedure) 256 45 53 165 115 162 283 414 503 390
Source: National DNA Database annual report 2011 to 2012, National DNA Database biennial report 2009-2011, National DNA Database annual report 2007-09, Parliamentary written answer 2007-05-10

The DNA and fingerprint provisions of the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 are scheduled to commence in October. Before then, DNA profiles of the innocent must be deleted, and most DNA samples destroyed. The profile deletion process is managed by the custodian of the NDNAD, which has been the Home Office since the closure of the National Police Improvement Agency. The physical destruction of the samples is handled by the forensic service provider that did the sequencing. This work was initially slow (see table below), but '[t]here has been significant progress' explained Lord Taylor of Holbeach in the House of Lords:

To date, 1,136,000 DNA profiles belonging to innocent individuals have been deleted from the National DNA Database. Some 6,341,000 DNA samples containing sensitive biological material that are no longer needed as a DNA profile has been obtained have been destroyed.

DNA sample destruction is due to be completed by the end of this month, and DNA profile and fingerprint deletion by the end of September. By the time the Act commences in October, only those convicted of a criminal offence will have their DNA and fingerprints retained indefinitely.

This must be a moment of great relief to all those innocent individuals whose DNA profiles the police were desperately retaining. However, as there was no requirement for a notification mechanism, it is likely no one concerned has been informed. If you have been arrested, your DNA taken and believe your DNA profile should have been deleted, one way to find out is to use the Data Protection Act and send a subject access request to the police force that arrested you (for help, see my short guide: How to obtain personal information which is held by an organisation?)

  2012-03-04 2012-03-19 2013-05-20
DNA profile deletions 504,000 504,000 1,136,000
DNA sample destructions 439,000 453,000 6,341,000
Source:  Ministerial statement 2013-05-20, Parliamentary written answer 2013-03-21, Ministerial statement 2013-03-04

Here are some of the provisions describing what must happen before the coming into force of any provision of Part 1, Chapter 1 of the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012:

14. (4) A DNA sample to which this section applies must be destroyed—

(a) as soon as a DNA profile has been derived from the sample, or

(b) if sooner, before the end of the period of 6 months beginning with the date on which the sample was taken.

25. (2) The Secretary of State must, in particular, provide for the destruction or retention of PACE material taken, or (in the case of a DNA profile) derived from a sample taken, before the commencement day in connection with the investigation of an offence.

25. (3) Such provision must, in particular, ensure—

(a) in the case of material taken or derived 3 years or more before the commencement day from a person who— (i) was arrested for, or charged with, the offence, and (ii) has not been convicted of the offence, the destruction of the material on the coming into force of the order if the offence was a qualifying offence,

(b) in the case of material taken or derived less than 3 years before the commencement day from a person who— (i) was arrested for, or charged with, the offence, and (ii) has not been convicted of the offence, the destruction of the material within the period of 3 years beginning with the day on which the material was taken or derived if the offence was a qualifying offence, and

(c) in the case of material taken or derived before the commencement day from a person who— (i) was arrested for, or charged with, the offence, and (ii) has not been convicted of the offence, the destruction of the material on the coming into force of the order if the offence was an offence other than a qualifying offence.

For a recap of the provision of the Protection of Freedoms Act, see the post Innocents to become less suspect written when the bill was debated, or check out the act.

Stealth DNA database of everyone

In contrast to the positive development of destroying all DNA samples and the DNA profiles of the innocent held on the NDNAD, a new report (pdf) by GeneWatch UK exposes the Government's plan to build a whole population DNA database by stealth:

In April 2013, the Caldicott Committee, including Government Chief Scientist Sir Mark Walport, proposed new rules for data-sharing which would allow the Government to build a DNA database of the whole population of England in the NHS by stealth.

The plan is to make NHS medical records and people's genetic information available to commercial companies and to use public-private partnerships to build a system where all private information about every citizen is also accessible to the police, social workers, security services and Government.

In announcing the report, GeneWatch UK director, Dr Helen Wallace said:

Total government surveillance of every citizen and the end of privacy between doctors and their patients are inevitable if a DNA database is built within the NHS. Every adult and their children will be tracked using their DNA, and private healthcare records from the NHS will be sold around the globe. Genes are poor predictors of most diseases in most people and personalised risk assessments will lead to the marketing of fear and medicalisation of vast swathes of the English population. The costs of unnecessary follow-up of misleading risk predictions could bankrupt the NHS and harm the health of vulnerable people.

For more information on the new data sharing powers, check out the presentations from the launch conference of medConfidential. Phil Booth's slides include diagrams that are extremely useful when trying to make sense of the new NHS structure and understand the workings of the General Practice Extraction Service (GPES) system used to share data from your GP. The GeneWatch report includes on pp. 33-34 two diagrams from a presentation by Tim Hubbard, Wellcome Trust Sanger Centre that shows the flow of the genomic information. The individual genome sequence is about 3 GB, this will be compared to a reference genome sequence, and the difference –a variant file of about 10 MB– stored in the electronic health record, and from there in the cloud.

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Tue, 07 May 2013

Naked citizen: CCTV and online surveillance

Last October, I was interviewed about my unlawful arrest by Patrick Hafner, a journalist at Austrian Broadcasting Corporation ORF, who visited London to shoot a TV documentary about monitoring, both in terms of CCTV surveillance and online data gathering, for the programme 'Welt Journal' (World Report).

Naked Citizen (c) ORF

The international version of the program, called Naked Citizen has just been published on YouTube:

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Repair, don't despair! Towards a better relationship with electronics

The Restart Project is a London-based social enterprise and charity aiming at changing our relationship with information technologies by empowering people to repair and reuse their electronic devices. It was started nine months ago by Janet Gunter and Ugo Vallauri.

The Restart Project’s vision is one based on collaboration and creativity – combining online knowledge sharing and cooperation with tangible activities in real life. One of the main such activity have been ‘Restart Parties’, community repair events, where all kinds of electronics are taken apart and repaired by owners together with volunteer repairers (Restarters). The aim is to promote increased lifespan, share repair skills and promote sustainable and informed consumption of information technologies.

To find out when and where the next Restart Party will happen, check out the events page.

Restart Party (c) Janet Gunter

Becoming a Restarter

At the end of last year, I turned up at a Restart Party and joined other volunteers to become a Restarter.

The Restart Project has been generating lots of interest and below are my contributions to two interviews, one in English and one in French, about it. Follow the links to read the articles in full.

Janet contributed Could you become a Restarter to the RSA's Great Recovery blog:

[...] We owe all of our momentum to our Restarters, a fun yet serious group. We would like to take a moment to introduce two of our committed repairers, and share their approach to repair. [...]

David, an east Londoner who has a background in tech and telecommunications, and is a privacy and civil liberties activist, writes

“The skills needed for most repairs are: a lot of common sense, some limited experience (acquired at a Restart Party), good research skills and access to a few tools. For example, if you can deal with a blown fuse, you have some understanding of continuity and if you have ever touched a lit light bulb, you understand that current generates heat. So when a device stops working, first steps are to check that everything is still connected, that electricity flows, and that there’s no dust or crumbs blocking any fan (an air duster often comes handy). For how to open a device such as a laptop or a mobile phone, that’s where the research skills comes in handy as it is likely already documented somewhere on a web page or a video. Experience will be useful to realise how hard to pull on a part to pry it open while being careful to avoid ripping out a hidden connector, or that using an egg carton to store screws in the order of each step helps to find them again when time comes to reassemble things.”

Both believe in the empowering and transformative aspect of repair. [...]

And David says:

“For more than twenty years I’ve been communicating to demystify new technologies and software development, initially – and how to reclaim our civil liberties, later. What attendees get out of the Restart Parties should be much more than a repaired product: a willingness to fix their electronic products in the future and some basic repair skills. The Restart Parties are an occasion for collaborative repairing, where there are no geniuses, just more experienced Restarters (and hopefully soon to be Restarters). It is for this transformative process, when attendees realise that many repairs are accessible to them, that I am involved in Restart. The confidence gained at the Restart Parties by some attendees to start fixing things on their own is the most rewarding part of the experience.”

If you are reading this, perhaps you have a skill worth sharing: maybe you know how to make a slow PC faster again. Or you know how to clean a printer, or how to extend the battery life of a smartphone. Perhaps you are a professional repairer or a tinkerer, and you can teach us more. If you’d like to get involved, please contact us on our website or on

Béatrice Debut wrote Halte au gaspillage: des ateliers londoniens pour les nuls en électronique for the AFP:

Ordinateur poussif, bouilloire défectueuse, lecteur MP3 en rade: plus besoin de s'arracher les cheveux pour les réparer ou de se précipiter au magasin pour les remplacer. A Londres, les novices peuvent apprendre gratuitement à prolonger la vie de leurs appareils, une alternative à la société de consommation en période de crise économique et écologique.

Lyn Turner, bonnet bleu enfoncé sur la tête et chien en laisse, est frustrée. Cette quinquagénaire ne peut plus écouter ses programmes favoris: sa petite radio est en panne.

"Je serais surprise si vous parveniez à la réparer", lance-t-elle, en la confiant à l'un des bénévoles férus de technologies de l'organisation "Restart Project" ("Projet redémarrer").

Ce samedi, l'atelier a élu domicile dans une boutique vide-greniers de North Cheam, une banlieue modeste du sud de Londres. David Mery, barbe poivre et sel soignée, tout de noir vêtu, vérifie d'abord les piles, sous l'oeil attentif de Lyn. Bingo. Une pile a coulé. Il la remplace et la radio se remet à crépiter. "1305, c'est ma fréquence préférée", explique Lyn à David qui s'exécute.

"La prochaine fois, vérifiez les piles, et si vous n'utilisez pas votre radio pendant longtemps, mettez-les dans un tiroir", conseille David, 47 ans. Lyn acquiesce. [...]

Les ateliers, organisés deux fois par mois à Londres, visent à "démystifier la réparation" pour que "la personne ait confiance de se lancer elle-même la prochaine fois", explique David, ancien journaliste. [...]

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