Sunday, 23 August 2009
DNA database - a human scrapyard catalogue.
Tom Harris put up a tongue-in-cheek post about getting the police to accept his DNA on the Database of Life. Dry humour, but humour nonetheless.
Iain Dale did not see the funny side.
Mr. Harris's little joke, while not at all funny to all those who have been arrested for trivia, released without charge and added to the database anyway, will have no effect at all on his own election chances in Glasgow. It won't have much, if any, effect on Labour in England and Wales either because Labour supporters have bought in to the 'anyone objecting is hiding something' lie. The reason it won't have any effect in Scotland is the same, plus...
The difference between the two is down to geography. Mr. Harris is in Scotland, where the police cannot take your DNA unless you are charged with something and can't keep it unless you are convicted. So his constituents will not be up in arms at his little joke. They haven't experienced the cataloguing of everyone, guilty or innocent - yet.
Iain Dale might well be on that database and if he isn't, he probably knows someone who is. South of the border, the police can take your DNA when they arrest you even if they decide not to charge you with anything, and it goes on the database regardless. So Mr. Dale lives where he can be directly affected by this Argos-catalogue of humanity. Mr. Harris does not.
Because of this, Mr. Harris regards concerns over the retention of everyone's DNA as mere paranoia. I can see why he'd think that way. A simple comparison of policing between the two countries shows that down south, the police are far more likely to make an arrest for a trivial offence, or to carry out their jackboot-style dawn raids, than here in Scotland. Since there's no mileage in collecting another DNA sample here, you're more likely to get a ticking off, a warning or a spot fine for being naughty. You won't be taken to the station unless you've been really bad.
Police in Scotland are still in the role of revenue collectors, just like down south, and they have targets so you have to be very careful towards the end of the month, but they are not DNA collectors so they don't need to bring in every suspect for sampling.
In Manchester, the police have just picked up 454 new samples in dawn raids (dawn raids on drunks being just a little more vindictive than necessary, I'd have thought). How many will be charged? Ten percent? Five percent? How many will be on that database? All of them.
So what's the big deal? Most of the comments in support of the database include 'nothing to hide, nothing to fear' and 'DNA is complicated so it can't be used to fit people up', both of which are rubbish and the latter statement especially so.
I can set up a DNA replication lab, within my existing lab, for around £5000. I've used the technology before because it has applications in bacterial identification and it's really not difficult to use. I wouldn't need as much gear to copy DNA as I would for a bacterial analysis because I don't need to sequence the sample after I've made it. With a little sample of your DNA I can make many copies and strew them around crime scenes. I don't even have to know the sequence of your DNA to do this. With the help of accomplices I could leave evidence that will show that you committed five crimes simultaneously in three different UK cities while you were on holiday in Australia. Who will the court believe? You or the DNA? You really want to risk it? It's DNA remember. You can't argue with DNA.
If I was a Government funded lab set up to dispose of awkward people, I could assemble a copy of your DNA without ever seeing a sample. I could do it from the sequence on the database. We need never meet. This technology is not new, it's not something out of science fiction, it's been around for quite a few years now. All those GM crops - how do you think they constructed the genes to splice into the plants? All those bacteria modified to produce antibiotics - how did they do that?
There is equipment in research labs all over the place that can assemble a specific DNA strand from bottles of chemicals. It's automated. You give it the sequence and go home, and it's made the DNA in the morning. This equipment is not new. I watched one of these things in action five years ago (it was used for perfectly benign purposes in actual research) and it's an impressive piece of machinery.
DNA is made of four chemicals. Four. The order of these chemicals in the strand is what determines the action of genes, but there are only four chemicals involved. Almost all the machinery used to handle DNA has now been automated to the extent that you could train a badger to use it. Maybe even an MP. Replicating, sequencing and assembling DNA isn't the subject of research these days. It's an established research tool.
Getting a copy of your DNA made is no problem at all. A sample would work, but you don't even need a sample if you have the sequence written down. You don't need to copy the entire human genome, just enough to match the entry in the database. Piece, as they say, of piss.
Criminal gangs can easily afford to do all this and they can easily find someone far more expert than me in this subject who has a degree and no job and who is desperate and open to offers. The cost is nothing compared to the money going through drug barons or people traffickers' hands. All they need do is to watch train seats for USB sticks and they'll have that database. Fancy having a gang come after you because some Saudi millionaire needs a heart transplant, and you're a match? Or maybe your liver matches a Russian yacht-owner who's overdone the vodka while partying with an unelected leader of some country or other. It's not just governments disposing of dissidents you need to be concerned with. This government will - definitely - lose the database as they have with all the others. Then it's open season on your kidneys.
Nothing to hide?
How about your internal organs? I don't know about you, but I like mine just where they are, thanks.
(Although I've pretty much wrecked most of mine by now. Anyone stealing my lungs or liver for a transplant is going to get a nasty shock).