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Page last updated at 13:08 GMT, Monday, 25 August 2008 14:08 UK

The malign power of platitudes


Many innocent people are on the DNA database

We hear thousands of platitudes in daily life, and many are uttered to steer us away from scrutinising questionable practices, writes Katharine Whitehorn.

The great writer and journalist G.K. Chesterton once wrote that he had spent all his life finding out that platitudes were true.

And maybe some of them are, though quite a few are ambiguous. "Ne'er cast a clout till May is out" - no-one seems to be sure whether it's until the May tree is in bloom, or the month of May is over.

But some platitudes are all wrong - "No smoke without fire" for instance, as any teacher smeared for life by a spiteful child knows only too well.

Katharine Whitehorn

If your DNA's on the police database and shows up at a crime scene, you're a suspect right away even if you just delivered a pizza to the victim

And there is one platitude going around which is seriously damaging.

Whenever doubts about nationwide computerised health records or DNA banks or ID cards or biometric passports come up, someone will smugly say: "If you've done nothing wrong you've nothing to worry about."

Oh no? What about the news item in last week's papers that the police have kept the DNA records of 40,000 children who are innocent? And at the end of July some research by the Human Genetics Commission, funded by the Home Office, led to the Telegraph headline: "One million innocent Britons 'criminalised' says damning report."

If your DNA's on the police database and shows up at a crime scene, you're a suspect right away even if you just delivered a pizza to the victim.

The database apparently contains the genetic records of four million people and insurance companies are already sniffing round it like hungry wolves, to exclude anyone with a dodgy heritage.

DNA's been used on the whole more to prove innocence than guilt so far - but the idea that if you've done nothing wrong you can't still be stitched up by a crook or a lazy cop or even a simple mistake in the original input is nonsense.

Security issue

And what about identity theft, which is rife? The more there is on record, the more vulnerable you are - people go through your dustbins to pick out discarded bank details, credit card numbers, official communications. I ought to shred everything, I know, but I tend to tip the contents of the cat tray over sensitive material instead.

It's risky even to fill in those spaces at the beginning of your diary for telephone number, passport number, car registration and so on. I used to do that - until I had my handbag pulled off my shoulder with the diary in it, and my keys - so the thief knew exactly which car and which house to go for.

Nowadays I put nothing in except my blood group and an emergency number to ring.

Dixon of Dock Green
Dixon could be trusted but what about computer security

Gordon Brown, attacked on the security issue generally, reassured the world that it was all OK because they were now going in for - among other things - biometrics - and it took only a week for Ben Goldacre, in his Bad Science column in the Guardian, to show exactly how, and how easily, these can be faked too.

And the new "secure passport"? Someone had easily faked one of those in only 24 hours. When some civil servant sent a disc containing the details of every single recipient of child benefit through the post and it failed to arrive - heaven knows who has it now - some of us thought that had put paid to the ID idea for good. But no.

When it comes to the usefulness of personal records, there's another aspect to it. When a freedom of information act came in America, it didn't take long before officialdom realised that the best way to keep its secrets was to record them in such massive detail that the man who started a search at age twenty would have died of old age before he found what he wanted.

So even when the millions of records are legitimate, as from criminal convictions, if there are too many of them, they may well be just too many to trawl through effectively, whether it's the "too many crooks" platitude or "hide a leaf in a forest".

Anyway, what about this "done nothing wrong" platitude? We're so set about with prohibitions and rules nowadays that it's quite hard to get through a month, let alone a lifetime, without doing something illegal, and you don't have to have done anything all that serious to have broken some sort of law.

Identity thieves

Even the most harmless of us have probably at least once gone over the speed limit. And if we paid a fine there'll be something on the record.

I am dead against people using mobile phones while driving - but when you're two hours late and totally stationary in a traffic jam? Health and safety rules spring up like mushrooms and are all too easy to break by accident - ask any restaurateur and there's all this extraordinary stuff about people being drilled with fascist intensity about what they put in their dustbins.

I can never make out from the news reports whether they're in trouble for having too much rubbish or too little, and I daresay they can't either. Perhaps the expert identity thieves who go through dustbins could be hired by the council to sort this out.

Volunteer gives fingerprint
A bewildering array of institutions keep personal data about us

My husband's favourite military maxim was "if you hit anything call it the target". Unfortunately today's governments seem to think that if they've called anything a target they've hit it - that if there's a rule about something, then it's all fixed.

Their trouble is that they don't read enough thrillers. If they did, they'd realise that anything cops can do crooks can do too - that it's extremely difficult, once you've gathered information, to make sure it isn't used by the bad guys.

Donald Westlake's book Bad News has an intricate plot about a woman calling herself Little Feather claiming to be the last descendant of a native American tribe which owns a multimillion dollar casino.

Her accomplice has to break into a house to steal a hair off someone's hairbrush for her to produce as her own DNA. Soon after I'd read that, I went through the closest airport security check I've ever encountered, for a domestic flight from, of all places, Newport News, Virginia.

They wiped our cases with a special rag that could detect whether we'd had traces of explosives on our hands when we zipped them up. And I thought that I would undergo all this rather more willingly if I didn't know that any Westlake crook could find a way round it in five minutes.

Knowledge is power

And as for computer security - sometimes protected by little more than a password, for heaven's sake - remember the episode of Morse where the crook had spent his time in prison becoming an ace geek, and managed to falsify the police computer records to give Morse himself a disgraceful past? The day was only saved by looking up the good old newspaper records of the Oxford Times.

"Knowledge is power" - that's another platitude, and the more private stuff governments find out about us, keep it, use it, deduce things from it, the more power they have over us.

There was a good reason why people tore up their identity cards with joy at the end of the war - they saw them as a symbol of a Big Brother state. A good reason, too, why the pass laws in South Africa were so detested - admittedly they carried a worse element, since only those with the right pass could work in particular areas, but anything which allows the police to pull you in just for not having it on you is alarming (and I speak as one who is on her third diary this year and her last pair of glasses).

I daresay some of these massive inroads into our private particulars can be used to good effect on occasion - that not all of us will suffer from misinformation or the confusion of two records or petty corruption or massive incompetence or machines simply not working.

But anyone who really believes that information kept by officialdom will only ever be used for our good should remember the reply given by the Duke of Wellington to a man who said "Mr Jones, I believe?" and was told "if you believe that you'll believe anything".

A selection of your comments appears below.

You are very right. Saying the old, "if you have nothing to hide,.." platitude is a cover for taking away your rights. We have to remember that the may function of any government is to suppress dissent and to remove freedoms by regulating all actions and therefore, thoughts. Orwell was right, just a little premature. But I suspect the future will be much worse than he imagined. When the president of the USA can say that the constitution is "just a goddamn piece of paper" and get away with it, we are already lost.
James Smith, Joćo Pessoa, Brazil

The whole thing would be farcical if it wasn't that we're slowly becoming more and more of a police state. I hope that when it comes to the crunch, it will be millions who refuse to have anything to do with ID cards, not thousands. As for airport security, most of what the public sees is purely for show and achieves very little. It's inconsistent between airports and sometimes checks appear to be performed based on the mood of the personnel on the day.
Dave, Cambridge, UK

It is a long time since I read such nonsense, which seems to have very little fact provided to back up the assertions made. It is scare mongering of the worst kind. Is the author a "Daily Mail" reader?

Big Farang, St Albans

DNA is no different to fingerprints. If the police find fingerprints all over a crime scene they will check to see who they belong to and why they were there, so they can eliminate all the innocent parties. Merely planting a hair at a crime scene won't be enough to send someone to jail, because DNA is only a small part in the investigation process, which needs to prove means, motive and opportunity. The idea that a super-criminal could commit a crime, erase all trace of their presence, and then replace that evidence with convincing evidence of another person being there, is quite frankly laughable.
Thomas, Maidstone, UK

My (least) favourite platitude is the one that warns us that we must be protected from the "Tyranny of the Majority". A moment's reflection shows that the mathematical alternative to "Tyranny of the Majority" is "Tyranny of Some Minority". Reading through all these infringements of our privacy and our liberty, does anyone believe that they would be approved by a majority of The People, voting in a referendum? Of course not. But The People are not permitted to vote on it in a referendum, lest there be a "Tyranny of the Majority". So we are instead tyrannised by a tiny minority of professional politicians and bureaucrats who want to collect as much information as they can about us.

What a load of rubbish. The article is epitomised by the statement "If your DNA is on the police database and it is found at a crime scene, then you're a suspect even if you've just delivered a pizza". I'm afraid to say that you're a suspect if they find your DNA or not, just for being at a crime scene. The DNA is irrelevant in such a case! And, unfortunately, the article is flawed in so many similar ways.
Barry, Wirral

What a sad, sad state of affairs this country and its people have gotten itself into. Much to say, but I'll just say that the TV program "Big Brother" has been used to indoctrinate us in to thinking it's ok to spy on people and attempts to make less of the real big brother which is coming your way soon. I'm off. Will the last person to leave, please turn off the CTV cameras...
Colin Harrison, East Grinstead

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