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    Location: Aberystwyth, Wales, United Kingdom

    I am the owner and managing director of Information Automation Limited (IAL), a company that specialises in research, consultancy and training for the information profession. We are particularly interested in all forms of electronic information resources (e-journals, e-books, etc) and I teach a course in electronic publishing at the Department of Information Studies in Aberystwyth. Drilling down still further(!), my interests centre on the quality and evaluation of electronic information, and in the thinking that underpins activities in library and information science.


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    Thursday, September 06, 2007

    DNA - the Sedley medley

    Yesterday's news stories on Lord Justice Sedley's suggestion that the state of the UK DNA databases - currently biased against UK ethnic minorities in terms of its coverage - was indefensible and could only be set to rights by including every UK citizen and visitor has raised much debate (he said, mildly). The Guardian headlines 'Anger over call to widen DNA database' and notes that
    The UK's 12-year-old DNA database has 4m profiles and is the largest in the world, growing by 30,000 samples a month. According to the Home Office website, 5.2% of the UK population is on the database, compared with 0.5% in the US
    while BBC News also has the full story - All UK 'must be on DNA database' - and the World Service's Have Your Say has produced a flurry of responses on the web site.

    I think we can draw some comfort from the fact - unconsciously echoing my thought, yesterday - that
    A spokesman for Prime Minister Gordon Brown said to expand the database would create "huge logistical and bureaucratic issues" and civil liberty concerns.
    Which being translated, probably means it can't be done! A grain of further comfort in that this has been acknowledged before the spending of some few millions trying to do it! The BBC News story added:
    Professor Stephen Bain, a member of the national DNA database strategy board, warned expansion would be expensive and make mistakes more likely.

    "The DNA genie can't be put back in the bottle," he said.

    "If the information about you is exposed due to illegal or perhaps even legalised use of the database, in a way that is not currently anticipated, then it's a very difficult situation." ...

    Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights organisation Liberty, said a database for every man, woman and child in the country was "a chilling proposal, ripe for indignity, error and abuse".
    The Guardian story adds:
    The information commissioner, Richard Thomas, said a universal database would be "highly intrusive, and the more information collected about us, the greater the risk of false matches and other mistakes." David Davis, the shadow home secretary, called for a parliamentary debate on the issue. "The erratic nature of this database means that some criminals have escaped having their DNA recorded whilst a third of those people on the database - over a million people - have never been convicted of a crime," he said.

    This is selective quoting, by way of balance - Keith Jarrett, president of the Black Police Association, backed the Sedley plan; Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, did not; and Home Office Minister Tony McNulty said there were
    no plans to introduce DNA profiling for everyone in the UK, but "no-one ever says never".
    In comments to the web Have Your Say story, James O'Hare, Leeds wrote:
    "Yes but only if it is kept secure" Please enlighten me as to how any database can be kept fully secure. People regularly access CIA, MI5 etc. secure networks not even knowing what they are looking for. This will be the prize of every hacker in the world and it will be breached, no network is fully secure.
    and Anna from Gateshead wrote:
    I used to extract DNA profiles for a living and although the technology is 99.9% accurate, database systems can be easily hacked into and/or forged. Your DNA profile could be associated with someone else's name and details.
    Z - from London, added:
    It's not a question of whether your government can trust you. Can you trust your government?
    which pretty much sums up the tenor of the debate.

    I use computers all the time for my work and would be lost without them; on my return from Africa my laptop refused to start up. Computers can fail in all sorts of ways; they can also be attacked in ever more sophisticated ways by hackers who are ALWAYS one step ahead of the detection software. Another BBC story notes that
    some hacking groups offer boutique virus writing services that produce malicious programs that security software will not spot.
    Isn't it time that UK governments stopped relying on huge, vulnerable, uncontrolled databases to solve their problems?

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