back to article UK Home Office seeks secret settlements over unlawful DNA retention

The UK Home Office is trying to keep secret three out-of-court settlements with claimants who allege the police unlawfully retained their biometric details. Problems affecting Blighty's ageing Police National Computer (PNC) are an open secret. Yet the Home Office's reaction to allegations of impropriety – to treat them as …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Its almost like the home office/government doesn't care about human rights at all...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      I disagree, they obviously care very much. So much so that in fact any criticism of the forces they (ostensibly) control whose (ostensible) purpose is to uphold the rights of Britons is taken therefore as criticism of those rights. Therefore, clearly, criticism leveled on the grounds that those forces themselves are in breach of such rights is simply political skullduggery. Don't you all see how much the gov cares? They care so much. So. Much. So much it hurts them. Why does the Reg insist on this kind of journalism? Just because it's true, why publish it and hurt the Home Office? Why are there no stories about how great Theresa's fashion sense is? I'm canceling my subscription.

      1. Disgruntled
        Facepalm

        Such eloquently put support for the endeavours of the loyal servants of Her Majesty’s Government deserves praise indeed but you seem to have accidentally ticked the “post anonymously” box

    2. Dan 55 Silver badge

      They do care, which is why they really don't want a sentence against them in court.

    3. theModge

      They care enough to promise to opt us out of the Human Rights Act.

      It's just that the care about removing them, not upholding them, that's all.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      If you were a law-abiding citizen you'd have nothing to hide and whether or not your data is deleted would be immaterial. Human rights of society are being upheld by being able to track criminals forever.

  2. alain williams Silver badge

    Documents not deleted ...

    just been moved to Panama

  3. Doctor_Wibble
    Boffin

    Time limit selected to crap on the other side

    Some of this is memory dependent...

    The DNA database underwent the start of massive expansion in 2004 when the rules for collection were changed. Then some time after the S and Marper ECHR ruling in 2008 the Home Sec declared a six year time limit on DNA retention which would mean that the big workload of removal would not really ramp up until 2010, i.e. after the next election (and probable cabinet reshuffle) and therefore be someone else's problem, likely even a different party.

    Making regulations in compliance with the ruling was at best reluctant so it's not surprising there was no official enthusiasm. No excuse for the failure to implement these though.

  4. Ole Juul Silver badge

    secret settlements?

    What's wrong with jail time?

    1. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

      Re: secret settlements?

      That would land on the people responsible. Wouldn't it be better to keep this quiet by handing over a pile of tax payers' money?

  5. Adam 52 Silver badge

    Home Office or MPS

    National DNA database is run by the Home Office. So they should be the defendant. Easy.

    Or take the usual approach, make both defendants and let the judge decide how to apportion liability.

    Really irritates me when May et al. talk about the importance of the rule or law and then ignore court rulings.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Home Office or MPS

      For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our government 'as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone'.

    2. captain veg

      Re: Home Office or MPS

      > May et al. talk about the importance of the rule or law and then ignore court rulings

      I see where you are confused. She doesn't mean "the law" in an abstract sense. She means it as in "the long arm of The Law", also known informally as "The Bill" and sometimes "The Fuzz", amongst other, less complimentary epithets.

      -A.

  6. theOtherJT

    Not surprised

    Let me tell you a little story about a library cataloguing program called genesis. Genesis was originally implemented to use serial terminals attached to a minicomputer, but at some point in the early 80s was updated to run as a DOS program on x86 pcs. When they did this, they made some design decisions that are beyond bizarre, including reserving a few blocks of memory as a keyboard and screen buffer.

    Yes, the same buffer.

    The practical upshot of this was that if you were a proficient typist you could overflow the keyboard part of the buffer into the screen part and corrupt the display. The "fix" implemented for this was a keyboard combination that flushed the entire buffer and reset the system to the last saved state - effectively deleting any work you had done since the last commit.

    Commits were only possible on the last page of each form, and forms couldn't scroll, so you had to fill in a page, read it carefully, tab your way to the "next" button, fill in the next page and so on until you got to the last one where you could finally save the data you'd just entered. If you cocked up by typing too fast, well, now the form was corrupted and you had to start all over again and some of these forms ran to 20 pages or so.

    That is the second worst computer system I've ever used.

    The PNC is the worst.

    1. theModge

      Re: Not surprised

      Are you suggesting that, as is so often the case in the UK, we are in fact protected by from our government by it's own incompetence?

      1. billse10

        Re: Not surprised

        protected from our government by it's own incompetence? Well, it's been that way for a large part of the last century and pretty much all of the time this one, so let's hope they don't discover efficiency, effectiveness or just plain competence. Scary thought.

        As far as "argument is proceeding on whether Home Office or MPS should be the defendant.” - they're playing pass the parcel of course - as they can hear the ticking ....

      2. theOtherJT

        Re: Not surprised

        Are you suggesting that, as is so often the case in the UK, we are in fact protected by from our government by it's own incompetence?

        No I'm suggesting that catastrophic failures of the PNC to properly handle sensitive data are not only unsurprising to me, but from my experience with the thing, were inevitable.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Expect the arrival of a swiftly-passed law to allow the Home Office to retain this data indefinitely without cause. Unless, of course, the victim is an MP.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      "Expect the arrival of a swiftly-passed law to allow the Home Office to retain this data indefinitely without cause. Unless, of course, the victim is an MP."

      In what they thought was the absence of such a law, that's precisely what they were doing. Until it was pointed out that EU law forbade it. So, unless there is a "brexit", that is unlikely to change unless the whole EU agrees to it.

      1. Adam 52 Silver badge

        How many times do we have to do this. The ECHR is nothing to do with the EU and exiting the EU won't make any difference to our membership of the European Convention other than the EU insisting that its members to uphold human rights.

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          "The ECHR is nothing to do with the EU and exiting the EU won't make any difference to our membership of the European "

          That's true, and I've made the same point myself. But as part of the EU we have to be part of the ECHR too and follow it according to EU interpretations. If UK Plc decides to exit the EU then we make are own interpretations of the ECHR and possibly even withdraw from it.

      2. David Pollard

        a swiftly-passed law

        Back in 1997 a solicitor explained to me that when DNA profiling was first introduced, parliament had been told and expected that it would be used exclusively to tie suspects to specific crimes; or to eliminate them from the enquiry. The use of the DNA database for 'trawling' was specifically not allowed; and it was expected that samples and records would be destroyed in due course some time after collection.

        After a few months a slight modification to the statute passed through parliament, which most MPs probably didn't understand or didn't even notice. This allowed retention of the data "for statistical purposes".

        And the authorities hiding behind such weasel wording to allow function creep wonder why there isn't too much public co-operation and why witnesses to crimes often don't willingly come forward.

  8. Anonnymous Hero
    Big Brother

    whats wrong with retaining DNA data?

    Surely a DNA database of everyone would be fantastic for crime solving. DNA test everyone at birth and anyone migrating to the UK and then simply use a dust buster to hoover up evidence at crime scenes to identify suspects.

    1. Simon Ward

      Re: whats wrong with retaining DNA data?

      They're probably working on that now (or at least, working on a way of monumentally fucking it up - gubbishment IT, remember?)

      Be *very* careful what you wish for.

      You might just get it.

    2. a pressbutton

      Re: whats wrong with retaining DNA data?

      Actually it would make the database less useful.

      Any reasonably competent burglar would buy a bag of DNA (dust from a vacuum cleaner) that has been taken from a bus/cinema.

      What my DNA is is none of HMG's business - and why should I pay taxes for them to keep it and make it searchable?

      DNA does not uniquely identify everyone - your identical twin has the same DNA as you. and the level of uniqueness depends on hte number of markers matched.

      The current balance where people who have a conviction have their DNA retained may not be perfect, but it is reasonable up to a point - why should I pay taxes for the police to find the criminals and then DNA match them again?

      1. Adam 52 Silver badge

        Re: whats wrong with retaining DNA data?

        "Any reasonably competent burglar would buy a bag of DNA (dust from a vacuum cleaner)"

        As I understand it the preferred method is to collect the fag ends from outside pubs.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: whats wrong with retaining DNA data?

      In an ideal society, where there were no corrupt officials & mistakes were never made you would be correct, however in such an ideal society there would be no need for such a database as everyone would be law abiding and only 'good' laws would be passed.

      However just as some of the population are criminals, some of those we elect to govern us are also revealed to be venal, corrupt, money grubbing megalomaniacs intent on taking everything we work our entire lives for and as some members of the police are also revealed to be in it for what they can get, on an almost daily basis, do you seriously want to give them the perfect tool for accomplishing their aims ?

      It's not a perfect world, the percentage of bad guys in positions of authority is at least the same as in the rest of society, if not greater, since bad guys gravitate to positions of power.

      And even if you could guarantee such a database would not be abused today, how about five, ten or twenty years time when a new political party is in power, can you guarantee they wont abuse the system ? Say some extremist party rises to power they could use such a database to look for racial profiles & 'purify' the race, history tells us this has happened with simple ID cards & government record systems already, what makes you think it won't happen here ?

      And all of this ignores error rates, take fingerprints for example, there is no published error rate for fingerprint matching, it is widely regarded as perfect, which is complete rubbish. It's just that no one wants to publish positive & negative error rates for fingerprints as there are people in prison who are there solely on fingerprint evidence. Indeed one Scottish policewoman (Shirley Mckie) had her career destroyed based on fingerprint evidence, she turned out to be innocent and the Scottish forensic office had only considered part of the print, carefully excluding a significant portion that would have revealed the print belonged to someone else, according to them that bit wasn't important. She has yet to receive an acknowledgement from the SFO that the fingerprint evidence was in error despite this being proven, they won't admit to mistakes as the system has to be seen to be perfect. You think that things like this won't happen with a DNA database ?

      Trust me, if you are an innocent person then the less the authorities know about you the better.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: whats wrong with retaining DNA data?

      Not to go all tinfoil hat on you, but do you mean this:

      https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/standards-for-nhs-newborn-blood-spot-screening

      Already exists since the 70's i think.

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: whats wrong with retaining DNA data?

        "Already exists since the 70's i think."

        DNA profiling didn't exist back then. The original Jeffreys Nature paper was 1985 (Wonkypedia has a typo in the date).

    5. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: whats wrong with retaining DNA data?

      Let's go back to basics and remember the scientific method. You have a hypothesis (there's been a crime and chummy committed it). You then test the hypothesis based on evidence that you've obtained (crime scene investigation), specifically you try to see if the evidence can disprove the hypothesis. The more the hypothesis can withstand efforts to disprove it the more it can be relied on. Clearly the evidence used to test the hypothesis should not include the evidence that led you to formulate it.

      Some sort of evidence is better than others in this respect. Take the ABO blood group system. AB as far as I can remember, is found in 10% of the population (A, B & O are present in greater percentages). So if there was an AB blood stain recovered from the scene and thought to be from the culprit 10% of innocent people would match it. This means that ABO on its own isn't a very discriminating test (in pre-DNA days ABO was combined with blood enzyme polymorphisms).

      At present DNA is the form of evidence that has the best discriminating power. It is, therefore, not a good idea to use DNA to form your hypothesis as to who might be guilty unless you have to; it means you have to look for other, less discriminatory lines of evidence to test it. If I were a juror and it became clear that a DNA database had been used to identify a suspect I'd look to other the rest of the case as the sole probative evidence.

      Apart from discriminating power there are two other things that matter in forensic science.

      One is sensitivity - how small a sample can give you results. This matters because the material from a scene or exhibit is often no more than a trace. DNA is very sensitive.

      The other is contamination. It's no use spending time examining material unless it's relevant to the crime. In this respect sensitivity works against you. If the method is sensitive it's more likely to pick up contaminants. This is why DNA as a source of a hypothesis should be supported by other evidence.

      BTW the contents of your vacuum cleaner will approach 100% contamination and should be discounted entirely.

      1. Rob Daglish

        Re: whats wrong with retaining DNA data?

        Yes, that's the scientific method. Police method is one of the following:

        1) Look for something to prove what we've already decided. Ignore anything else.

        2) Find a likely suspect, beat them round the head until they confess to whatever you want.

        1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

          Re: whats wrong with retaining DNA data?

          I can only respond to this from my own experience which, admittedly, is now many years ago and from before the privatisation of the old Forensic Science Service:

          "Yes, that's the scientific method. Police method is one of the following:

          1) Look for something to prove what we've already decided. Ignore anything else."

          Evidence was usually collected by SOCO trained by us or by the police surgeon as appropriate and occasionally by a scene visit from the lab. It was then examined along exactly the lines I laid out which I can summarise as: "This appears to support the allegation. Let me try to disprove it".

          "2) Find a likely suspect, beat them round the head until they confess to whatever you want."

          If this was alleged scene investigation would be by a forensic scientist from the lab, not by SOCO.

          From experience I can tell you it's a complete pain searching for possible splashes of blood on the walls of a cell treated with anti-graffiti paint which consists of flecks of different colours.

          Bear in mind that allegations are made from people with something to gain. I had one instance where it was alleged a suspect had been hit with a brush handle so hard it broke and, indeed, a broken brush handle was produced in evidence. Direct experiment showed that however hard one hit a pig carcase a similar handle couldn't be broken but if the end hit a floor or wall it would break. Nevertheless the end of the broken handle had fibres which matched clothing from the complainant. The complaint was exaggerated but it seemed likely that the complainant had been poked with the broken shaft. I don't know what the outcome was but in the past there'd been 2 or 3 junior detectives whose name I didn't know hanging about on the fringes of investigations in that division and who I never saw after that.

          My experience was that the senior levels of the force wouldn't tolerate that sort of behaviour whether as a point of principle or from a practical point of view in that it could lead to a case being lost in court if it even got that far. One consequence was the introduction of CCTV in interview rooms.

          Self harm by prisoners in cells was one problem. And I'm quite convinced that police cells are not the right place to house comatose drunks; there's not enough resources to monitor them continually and so they're at risk of choking to death on their own vomit. I don't know what the solution is there because A&E certainly won't want them.

  9. PaulAb

    I noticed...

    That this meeting involved a plethora of coppers, a plethora of Home office, a couple of bods from some DNA testing organisations and a couple of other government bods but I didn't really note any independant authorities. It all looked very cosey.

    The expenses from the listed participants at the meeting were probably far higher up the agenda than a simple civil rights issue. The result - nearly 5 pages of actual Q&A, they really got down to it that day.

    Yes, I like the word 'plethora' today. What of it!

  10. PaulAb

    I've just noticed that the page header for this document reads:

    Paper 3.0 NDNAD Strategy Board (10th December 2015)

    Shouldn't this be 'NDDNA' This could quiet possibly have occurred as a consequence of a distraction from the Expenses meeting.

    Yes, I know it reads correctly, but my interpretation is more hilarious

  11. dephormation.org.uk
    Holmes

    Rematerialised, or never vanished?

    https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/514152/Sept_2015_National_DNA_Database_Strategy_Board_Minutes.pdf

    ???

    Found via https://www.gov.uk/government/groups/national-dna-database-strategy-board#minutes

    1. Alexander J. Martin

      Re: Rematerialised, or never vanished?

      It has been republished. We're updating the article and chasing it up with the Home Office.

      1. Alexander J. Martin
        Facepalm

        Re: Rematerialised, or never vanished?

        They finally got back to us after too much pestering. We've updated:

        The Home Office declined to offer a statement to The Register, but was adamant that the document was removed as the result of a "technical glitch". It continued to refuse to elaborate on the out-of-court settlements.

        Aren't we all nice and informed now? (→)

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Any ideas

    On the law firm/lawyers involved?

  13. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken Silver badge

    Its almost like the home office/government doesn't know how the Internet works ...

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re. Any ideas

    Or the other method is to recover random envelopes from a recycling bin.

    Plenty of DNA there and you can even find out who is depositing their recycling in which bin with this method.

    I've actually started using dog saliva for letters now, works great with St Bernards and there is a near limitless supply now.

    Bonus if you use someone else's dog for this, or for that matter cat/ferret/brat/etc.

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