DNA - John C. Kirk
Mar. 11th, 2006
10:48 pm - DNA
This afternoon I went along to give my DNA/fingerprints to the police. This is related to the Sally Anne Bowman murder from last September, and the basic profile for the murderer is "male, white, 20-40, living/working in South Croydon". So, the police have been asking for people to come forward voluntarily to give samples that can be used to narrow down the search a bit; more info here.
In my case, I doubt that I'd be a serious suspect, but I do fit the basic profile (male/white/31/living nearby), and I'm happy to help out, so I went along. The testing area has been open for the last couple of weeks, but the main reason it's taken me so long is that it's not convenient in the morning (you can't have eaten/drunk anything for 20 minutes beforehand, and I normally have breakfast just before I leave the flat), and that I'm not normally home by 10pm in the evening. Anyway, it finishes tomorrow evening, and I have a (rare) weekend without SJA duties, so this seemed like a good time.
Bruce Schneier discussed this in his blog a couple of weeks ago. Generally speaking, I respect his views on security a lot - I've bought three of his books, and read two of them (!) cover to cover; the third one ("Applied Cryptography") was the core textbook for the cryptography module in my MSc. However, in this case I'm inclined to disagree with him, because there seems to be a kneejerk reaction against any hint of privacy concerns, where the government is collecting data on citizens. Having said that, his main objection seemed to be that people were being coerced into giving DNA samples, rather than that it was an intrinsically bad thing. I think that this recent User Friendly strip expressed the counter-argument quite nicely.
So, as I say, I went along to the church hall where the police were collecting samples. All in all, I was there for about 25 minutes (only queueing for about 2 minutes).
Step 1 was to show my ID and go through a short questionnaire. There were some fairly common questions (e.g. name/address/date of birth), and then some that were specific to this case (did I ever meet the victim, have I seen any of the evidence lying around). Things got a bit more blurry when they asked questions about other people. Firstly, they wanted to know about anyone else who lived in my flat (N/A), and about my neighbours - the idea seems to be that their next step is to go round seeing people at home who didn't volunteer to be tested, so they're trying to work out which houses to visit. More specifically, they wanted to know whether there were any other people living near me who matched the profile of the murder suspect. I figured that this is information that ought to be in the census (which it is a legal obligation to answer), so I mentioned my upstairs neighbours. Similarly, there were a couple of questions that asked whether I or anyone I know has been the victim of sexual assault, or a peeping tom, or anything like that. This was where I was vaguer than the police would probably have liked - I said that I knew of one person who'd been involved in a situation like that, but that I wouldn't give them the name/address, because it wasn't up to me to reveal the details.
Step 2 was to go to a different person, who checked my details again. Actually, I don't really remember this person adding much to the process, since he just repeated a couple of the same questions (name/address/date of birth), and gave me a packet to carry to step 3.
Step 3 was fingerprints. I started by getting a photo taken, holding up a board at chest height with a number written on it. It's a lot like the scenes I've seen in films where people are arrested, except that this was only a front shot (not "turn left, turn right"). The guy asked me to take my coat off for that (which I was happy to do), but I kept my CEA hoodie on (with the hood down). As for the fingerprints themselves, he checked that I wasn't wearing any rings (my watch wasn't a problem), and told me to roll my sleeves up. In retrospect, I think I should have just taken the hoodie off at this point (to avoid stretching the cuffs), but no biggie. He had a black pad, and he rolled some fresh ink onto it before we started. He then told me to relax my hand, then he guided my fingers to the appropriate place. Firstly, each finger/thumb was printed individually - this involved rolling it from side to side on the pad, and then again on the piece of paper. (The finger next to the little finger is the tricky one, because the other fingers catch on the edge of the table.) Then the thumbs were done again, rolling from front to back, to get the full length. Finally, the fingers were done in groups of four (i.e. one hand at a time). This did leave my hands rather messy (as you'd expect), but they have a supply of wet paper towels to clean up with, which are surprisingly effective, as well as dry paper towels to dry off with.
Step 4 was the actual DNA sampling. This involved two samples, apparently to guard against one of them being tampered with, so that someone can't say "That wasn't me!" I'm not quite convinced by this logic, since I don't see why it would be much harder to tamper with both, but I don't see that it makes me any worse off, so I don't have a problem with that. For each sample, he put a swab inside my mouth, and did three strokes at the bottom then three strokes at the top (next to the jawline). This didn't hurt, but it was slightly uncomfortable - not something I'd do for fun, but not a big deal either.
There were a few more standard questions at this point, and my habit of reading the forms upside-down came in handy:
Policeman: "Middle name?"
Me: "Crispin, spelt C-R-I..."
Policeman writes "K-R-I"
Me: "No, that's C-R-I"
Me: "Not K-R-I"
Me: "So you need to change that K to a C"
Policeman: "Ah, right" (changes it)
The most important thing here was to sign the consent form. (This actually happened before the samples were taken, but I've left it until the end because it deserves a longer discussion.) The form had three sections, and the idea is that I would sign either A or B, while the police would sign section C. Section A said "I agree for my sample to be used in this case, then destroyed afterwards". Section B said "I agree to my sample being stored in the national database, and being used in the prevention and detection of other crimes. NB Once consent has been given it cannot be withdrawn." (I'm paraphrasing from memory, since they kept all the forms, but that's the basic gist of it.)
Now, all of the publicity surrounding this sample-gathering has emphasised that the samples will only be used for this one case. Some people don't believe this (e.g. one of the commenters to Schneier's blog, who thinks that the police will weasel out of it by destroying the physical samples and keeping the digital copy), but that's certainly the claim. So, this question caught me by surprise, and my immediate thought was "Hmm, if I go with section A, that's going to look a bit suspicious". However, the policeman then emphasised that this is entirely up to me, and that he recommended section A. He said that if I went with section B then I don't know what the sample might be used for in the future, so I might find the CSA (Child Support Agency) tracking me down for my illegitimate children. He then left me to think this over while he filled out some of his other paperwork.
I considered this, and eventually (after a couple of minutes) decided to go with section B. Bottom line, I don't have any axe murders in my past, nor am I planning to commit any in the future, so I don't see any downside to doing it. Hopefully there are two advantages to this:
a) I came across as someone with a clear conscience, rather than someone with dark secrets.
b) If they do any similar sample gathering in the future then I don't have to turn up, because they've already got mine.
So, I told the policeman my decision, and the conversation went like this:
Me: "Ok, I'm going to go with section B."
Him: "Are you sure?"
Me: "Yeah, I don't have any illegitimate children running around, so I should be fine."
Him: "Well, not yet, anyway... I know which option I'd pick, but it's up to you."
Me: "Yup, I'm sure."
So, despite the privacy concerns that people have, I do want to emphasise that the police weren't trying to coerce me into joining the national database; quite the reverse, in fact.
I may regret this in the future (with the "no opt out" clause), and I think that other people should know about this question in advance to avoid being blindsided, but life's all about making choices.
While this may not be the best analogy, I've been thinking about an old storyline from the Superman comics, where Lex Luthor had a Kryptonite ring to keep Superman at bay. He eventually stopped wearing it when it gave him cancer and he had to have his hand amputated. Anyway, Superman got hold of it (in a lead box), and gave it to Batman for safekeeping - he was concerned about the possibility that he might turn evil in the future, and so he wanted someone he could trust to have the means to stop him in that scenario. I don't think I'm likely to go off the rails, but if it did happen then I'd want to be caught (or rather, the "me now" would want the "evil twin me" to be caught). People who know me well enough can probably fill in a few of the blanks there, but I don't want to elaborate in a public post.
Anyway, all in all I thought it was quite an interesting process, and if anyone else is reading this who lives nearby then you should probably consider whether to head down there tomorrow.