LONDON — The European Court of Human Rights ruled unanimously on Thursday that Britain’s policy of gathering and storing the fingerprints and DNA of all criminal suspects — even those who turn out to be innocent — was a violation of the human right to privacy.
The ruling, handed down in Strasbourg, France, is a severe blow to the law-enforcement policies of the Labor government, which has led Europe in aggressively collecting and retaining personal information on its citizens. Using unusually strong language, the court declared itself “struck by the blanket and indiscriminate nature” of the police’s policy of holding DNA material indefinitely in its database.
Britain has several months to decide how to respond to the ruling, but the current law will have to be amended. In a statement, the home secretary, Jacqui Smith, said she was “disappointed” by the court’s decision.
“I strongly believe DNA and fingerprints play an invaluable role in fighting crime and bringing people to justice,” she said. Britain’s DNA Database contains the profiles of more than 4.6 million people, some 860,000 of whom do not have criminal records. Privacy experts say that this represents a higher proportion of Britain’s population than do similar databases in other countries.
“They’re in the vanguard of doing this, is the polite way of saying it,” said Daniel P. Cooper, a partner at Covington & Burling, a corporate and business law firm that filed an amicus brief in the case on behalf of Privacy International, an advocacy group. “They have the biggest database in Europe, and possibly globally, for law enforcement purposes.”
Human rights groups applauded the court’s decision as a welcome check on the powers of the state.
“Forty percent of Britain’s criminals are not on this database, but hundreds of thousands of innocent people are,” said Anna Fairclough, the legal officer of Liberty, a British group that advocates for human rights. The court, she said, “has protected the privacy of British people so poorly let down by our own government.”
The government argues that information on the database collected from suspects in past crimes has helped investigators solve thousands of fresh cases in the past eight years, including at least 53 murders and 94 rapes.
Britain has a reputation for intruding in an increasingly heavy-handed way in its citizens’ private lives. It is said to have the most CCTV cameras per capita in the world. A government plan to issue mandatory ID cards encoded with personal information has stirred fierce opposition in a country that has long celebrated individual liberty.
“There have been a number of recent government initiatives which have been very worrying to privacy advocates,” Mr. Cooper said. “And there have been so many massive data breaches and leaks of information that anytime the government proposes something that would require collecting more data, people get very concerned.”
The DNA case was brought by two Sheffield men who were arrested in separate cases in 2001, but were both ultimately cleared of committing crimes. One, identified as Mr. S., 19, was charged with armed robbery; he was later acquitted. The other, Michael Marper, now 45, was arrested and charged with harassment in 2001; the charges were eventually dropped.
In both cases, the suspects’ fingerprints and DNA samples were taken by the police. Both men asked later that the samples be destroyed, but the police refused.
While most European countries allow the police to take fingerprints and DNA samples in some criminal cases, England and Wales are alone in Europe in allowing the samples to be taken as a matter of course, and in keeping them indefinitely, experts say. Scotland has separate, less stringent, rules.
The two men took their case to the European court after losing a series of battles in British courts, arguing that the police’s decision to keep the samples violated their right to privacy as set out in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Having information on the DNA data base was humiliating and stigmatizing, they said.
The court agreed, saying that Britain had “overstepped any acceptable margin of appreciation” in striking a balance between individual rights and public interests.
The current law, it said in stinging language, “constitutes a disproportionate interference in the applicants’ right for respect to private life and cannot be regarded as necessary in a democratic society.”
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