The National DNA Database

Britain has long been a bellwether for what is coming to the United States. First it was smoking bans, soon it will likely be national health care. And shortly to follow will probably be a federal DNA database.

What will follow that? The inevitable stories of DNA database abuses:

IT IS an object lesson in the unwisdom of shopping your nearest and dearest after an argument. In 2001 Michael Marper was arrested after his partner complained of harassment; the couple were later reconciled and the case was dropped. But in the meantime Mr Marper had to give police a sample of his DNA—which is still sitting in Britain’s DNA database, along with 4.5m others. That collection, already the world’s largest, covers 7% of the population (and 40% of black men). It is still growing, boosted by samples taken from all those arrested for a wide range of offences and kept even if they are never charged.

Since this lovers’ tiff, Mr Marper and a teenager known as “S”, who was tried for attempted robbery and acquitted, have spent much time trying to get their records removed from the database. In 2004 the House of Lords rejected their claim that the retention was discriminatory and infringed their rights to privacy.

A case can be made that one forfeits one rights when committing a crime, and thus after that point they may lose their right to DNA privacy. But in the eyes of the law, one hasn’t “committed” a crime until one is convicted of committing a crime. This is a simple case where individuals who have not been proven to have done anything wrong are having their privacy violated by the state, in case they might do something wrong in the future.

And they’re not alone. At the moment, their case is under appeal with the European Court of Human Rights, and if they are successful, as many as a million DNA samples might need to be purged from the database. But the Europeans may not be likely to view DNA privacy as an “essential” liberty. After all, if you haven’t done anything wrong, you have nothing to fear, right?

What will it take to see a federal DNA database on our shores? Probably one skillful politician to demagogue the threat of terrorism, despite the fact that a DNA database wouldn’t do anything to stop terrorism. But if it works* for Britain, it’ll probably work here, right?

* Which isn’t to say that it’s actually “working” for Britain, as this passage shows:

A series of government data blunders has led citizens to question the wisdom of entrusting officials with something as sensitive as their DNA. And this database has serious flaws. It recently emerged that one in seven of the entries are duplicates, stored under different names. When arrested and asked for a DNA sample, some people simply lie about who they are, it seems.

  • Quincy

    Government always operates on the principle of “Once you have their money/data/DNA/whatever, never give it back.”

    This shouldn’t be a surprise.

  • Ben

    Two things that repeatedly suprise me but shouldn’t:

    1) A government’s ability to be incredibly incompetent at all levels in all things.

    2) The public not caring about number 1.

  • Robbie

    I oppose DNA databases on the practical grounds that they would enable a tyrannical state to oppress citizens that much easier. But I don’t agree that people have a right to privacy. The DNA database is just a bunch of numbers in a computer. Provided the owner of the computer obtains the numbers legitimately (ie without coercion), they haven’t done anything wrong in my books. The same applies to Google, Facebook etc holding onto users data.

    But the fact is the government probably will take your DNA coercively (forcibly taking a swab or blood or whatever). Here they do violate peoples’ rights as if you haven’t been convicted this is essentially assault.

    But again, I oppose the government keeping any biometric data because it would make it terribly easy to track down dissidents. But there are reasons why a private company might want to collect DNA and, provided they do it non-coercively, I don’t think (so called) civil libertarians would be justified in demanding they erase data at someone’s request based on the (non-existent) “right to privacy”.

  • oilnwater

    a biometric database will indeed be the model for population data in the now-future. be in 1:ALL biometric interfacing for the purposes of physical entry, or access to any information query.

    i hate to sound like some yadda yadda crank about this. but i have been intimately familiar with various industry-oriented open-source consortiums involving biometrics. not only have industry products been offered to service the NIR in England, but the industry is planning on introduction in the United States, the primary vehicle being government.

  • oilnwater

    given that the NIR is now a technical fossil in England after the privacy bills failed. something like the NIR concept will guaranteed be resurrected.