Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘police’

Your shadow genetic profile

So, the “Golden Gate killer” has been caught, after forty years. Good news, to be sure, and it’s exciting to hear of the police using modern data systems creatively:

Investigators used DNA from crime scenes that had been stored all these years and plugged the genetic profile of the suspected assailant into an online genealogy database. One such service, GEDmatch, said in a statement on Friday that law enforcement officials had used its database to crack the case. Officers found distant relatives of Mr. DeAngelo’s and, despite his years of eluding the authorities, traced their DNA to his front door.

And yet… This is just another example of how all traditional notions of privacy are crumbling in the face of the twin assaults from information technology and networks. We see this in the way Facebook generates shadow profiles with information provided by your friends and acquaintances, even if you’ve never had a Facebook account. It doesn’t matter how cautious you are about protecting your own data: As long as you are connected to other people, quite a lot can be inferred about you from your network connections, or assembled from bits that you share with people to whom you are connected.

Nowhere is this more true than with genetic data. When DNA identification started being used by police, civil-liberties and privacy activists in many countries forced stringent restrictions on whose DNA could be collected, and under what circumstances it could be kept and catalogued. But now, effectively, everyone’s genome is public. It was noticed a few years back that it was possible to identify (or de-anonymize) participants in the Personal Genome Project, by drawing on patterns of information in their phenotypes. Here’s a more recent discussion of the issue. But those people had knowingly allowed their genotypes to be recorded and made publicly available. In the Golden Gate Killer case we see that random samples of genetic material can be attributed to individuals purely based on their biological links to other people who volunteered to be genotyped.

The next step will be, presumably, “shadow genetic profiles”: A company like GEDmatch — or the FBI — could generate imputed genetic profiles for anyone in the population, based solely on knowledge of their relationships to other people in their database, whether voluntarily (for the private company) or compulsorily (FBI).

Papers, please!, ctd.

Apparently Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the US has been conducting raids targetted enforcement in major US cities.

A DHS official confirmed that while immigration agents were targeting criminals, given the broader range defined by Trump’s executive order, they also were sweeping up noncriminals in the vicinity who were found to be lacking documentation.

For me, this raises again a question that has genuinely puzzled me for a long time: How many Americans typically carry with them documentation that would show their citizenship, or otherwise prove their right to be in the US? A birth certificate would do (unlike in the UK, where the government has been at pains to show that it won’t even recognise the right to citizenship of people of tainted foreign blood, even if they were born in the UK at a time when everyone thought the law automatically granted them citizenship), or a passport, but most people don’t carry these things around every day. Many Americans don’t have passports, and birth certificates may be hard to lay your hands on at short notice. (Besides which, what good does it really do to show a birth certificate if your name is John Smith — or, let us say, José Garcia?)

Police break the law: The law must be stopped!

Former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Ian Blair — now titled Lord Blair as reward for his 2010 resignation and his tireless efforts to expand the scope of police anti-terror activity — has given an interview in which he advocates criminalising any release of information that the state wishes to keep secret. He bemoans the fact that

Most of the legislation about state secrets is in the Official Secrets Act and it only concerns an official.

Now, before you wonder how far he might go in criminalising the discussion of public policy, rest assured, Blair is only interested in promoting discussion:

I think there is going to have to be a look at what happens when somebody possesses material which is secret without having authority.

That doesn’t sound so bad. They’re just going to “have a look”, and see “what happens”.

You might think, as soon as someone without “authority” possesses the material, that it is no longer a secret, but that would be only if you don’t have Lord Blair’s experience of making words mean what you intend them to mean.

If only we’d had these laws back in 2005, poor Charles de Menezes might still be a terrorist today!

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