Editorial | Published:

Watching Big Brother

Nature volume 456, pages 675676 (11 December 2008) | Download Citation

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The world is sleepwalking into a surveillance society. A European court ruling offers a timely wake-up call.

The European Court of Human Rights last week issued an opinion to which the developers and users of new technologies should pay heed. “Any state claiming a pioneer role in the development of new technologies,” the court said, bears special responsibility for “carefully balancing the potential benefits of the extensive use of such techniques against important private-life interests.”

This timely reminder, coming just before the 60th anniversary on 10 December of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was a strike at the British government's policy of keeping DNA fingerprint records on an ever-growing number of innocent people in England and Wales. That policy was indeed pioneering: the United Kingdom authorized the world's first national DNA database in 1994. The database has since proved helpful in solving a small but significant number of crimes, and many countries have followed suit. But the system, originally intended to cover only people convicted of serious offences such as murder and rape, has expanded to include samples from anyone arrested for any recordable offence — even dropping litter — and to keep them on record even if the arrest does not lead to a conviction. Moreover, the data have been used not just to match individuals to crimes, as originally intended, but also for more dubious applications such as searching for a perpetrator's blood relatives (see Nature 449, 377–378; 2007).

“Without strong safeguards, databases could slowly and steadily be linked into an all-pervasive monitoring system.”

As a result, Britain's DNA database has grown to become proportionally the largest in the world; it contains samples and data for 7% of UK citizens, far ahead of Austria in second place with 1%. The European Court's decision thus paves the way for 850,000 people, including tens of thousands of children, to have their records removed.

DNA databases are but one small tip of the emerging surveillance society. Even leaving aside law-enforcement and security initiatives, vast amounts of data are being collected by private firms through citizens' use of credit cards, mobile telephones and electronic travel tickets, not to mention the Internet and e-mail. These data are typically gathered not for any sinister purpose, but as legitimate efforts to offer customers better service. But the databases exist. And without strong safeguards, they could slowly and steadily be linked into an all-pervasive monitoring system that would make George Orwell's concept of 1984 look technologically tame — all in the name of security, efficiency and convenience.

Such concerns are certainly not new; Orwell's book was published in 1949. But the dizzying pace of technological advance makes them ever more salient — even as it makes the world's multitude of existing privacy acts seem light-years behind. Scientists, in particular, have an ongoing responsibility to reflect on the human-rights issues raised by the technologies they develop, and to lobby for appropriate oversight and controls. The risks posed by overzealous surveillance (see page 680) and the associated technologies are topics that should be addressed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Science and Human Rights Coalition, a forum of scientific bodies and human-rights groups to be created in January 2009 (see Nature 456, 2; 2008).

Technology can be a powerful force for human rights. Earth-observation satellites, for example, have provided evidence on conflicts and ethnic atrocities in areas where journalists are banned. And DNA fingerprinting has resulted in the freeing of wrongly convicted individuals, a role exemplified by the US Innocence Project in New York. The idea that the identity of a human can be revealed from samples of any cell in his or her body is a symbol of the fact that every person is unique. The declaration of human rights asks us to treasure and honour all these unique individuals with respect for their autonomy — not to simply look for better ways to barcode them.

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