My Google DNA news alert has been bombarding me over the past month about Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed expansion of New York’s DNA data base. His law proposal is supposed to be a ‘no brainer’ and make us all feel ‘more secure’. It breaks my heart how voters in ‘the land of the free’ are easily hood winked and seem to be sleepwalking into accepting such a serious ‘privacy intrusion’ by the state. This to me is so totally ‘un-American’. After all, paraphrasing US founding father Benjamin Franklin: “Those who sacrifice Privacy for Security deserve neither and will loose both”.
Meanwhile Cuomo’s Lieutenant Duffy, a former Rochesterpolice chief is busy making public appearances across the State lobbying for the expansion of an “all crimes”DNAdatabase. All 62 district attorneys in New York, as well as all 58 county sheriffs and more than 400 police chiefs are endorsing Cuomo’s plan to expand the state’s DNA data bank. Justice Reform activists are not so happy.
As usual for the lobby he represents, Duffy is parading a few victims of horrific crimes to jerk the public’s heart strings and so presenting DNA as a common-sense solution that shouldn’t be derailed by the lingering concerns of a few liberal minded justice reformers and paranoid privacy advocates. I thought we learned from experience that this sort of lobbying does not lend itself to arriving at well balanced legislation. That is, laws that balance the rights of potential victims of crime with the fundamental human right of citizens to ‘a private life’, free from wanton intrusion by the state.
During the last election in the UK, Prime Minister Gordon Brown behaved just as badly as Governor Cuomo, having his picture taken next to Sally-Anne Bowman’s mother Linda who he said had “suffered the most unspeakable tragedy yet still manages to be a compassionate campaigner for good”. With this he meant her support to expand the UK National DNA data base, which he claimed helped track down her daughter’s killer Mark Dixie. It didn’t, at least not in the way he misled the British public. Mark Dixie was a convicted felon, not just someone who was arrested for a misdemeanor. Labour actually lost this election, partially on the unbridled expansion of NDAD, the UK’s national DNAdata base, with the profiles of a million innocent citizens. This scandal, which Labour still won’t own up to, resulted in a whole chapter of the UK’s ‘Protection of Freedoms bill’. But this doesn’t deter the DNA lobby. Who ever is making the DNA tests kits must be raking it in! Genewatch reported that a US lobbying firm Gordon Thomas Honeywell has peddled proposals to create new DNA databases in Thailand, Brazil, Brunei, Bahrain, (South) Korea and Malaysia. Some of their presentations make highly misleading claims about the role of the UK DNA database in solving rapes. They certainly won’t mention evidence from the UK and California that widening the net of individuals with records on a DNA database is not an effective way to solve more crimes compared to examining more crime scenes.
Coming back to the US news articles, reading the ‘comments’ section, you will always see the unwavering support of the usual ‘nothing to hide – nothing to fear’ brigade of do-gooders. Have these people had no history lessons? What of the millions slaughtered by Stalin and Hitler? Just have a look at what the Nazi invaders did with the helpful ‘stippenkaart’ the Amsterdam civic administration left them at the start of World War II: Dots on a map showing where they could easily round up the Jews. And all done with originaly good intentions to build schools for a religious minority.
Note also the emerging pattern of the DNA lobby world wide to gradually shift from boasting how many ‘extra crimes’ this expanded data base would solve (which it won’t), towards claiming, like the National Policing Improvement Authoritiy (NPIA DNA data base and me (bullet 3) does in the UK, that “Every second, the DNA data base eliminates thousands as suspects to crimes.” Well big deal! GeneWatch among others have thoroughly debunked figures bandied about as propaganda by the DNA lobby in the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). All these illegally held records seem to do, is clog up the system and create false positives! This is a basic law of statistics when it comes to naturally occurring things like matching DNA profiles. If you don’t believe me just read the WikiPedia article on the birthday paradox. This naturally occurring phenomenon is especially problematic for certain ethnic groups in society. Researchers at the Universities of Washington and California at Berkeley show that false familial identification may be more likely for individuals with particular genetic backgrounds; for example, in the USA, those of Asian or Native American descent.
Among the relentless propaganda pieces placed in the press by the DNA lobby you occasionally find a breath of relief like the following piece by JURIST Guest Columnist Brandon Garrett of the University of Virginia School of Law. Brandon warns that enlarging DNA databanks with samples taken from all individuals ‘arrested’ for felonies may increase the risk of wrongful convictions, while diverting attention away from more fruitful routes for improving the criminal justice system… Remember that ‘arrested’ is not the same as convicted. Many are released with no charge to answer. Others are vindicated in Court. This ought to mean complete erasure of any DNA profile and record of arrest. Unfortunately not if it is up to Cuomo.
Recently even a heavy weight publication like ‘The Economist‘ weighed in with cautionary arguments. It seems DNA profiling and analisys is not as infallible as our DNA lobbyists would have us all believe: Forensic lab staff may “subliminally interpreted ambiguous information in a way helpful to the prosecution.” That is if the labs aren’t shut down through lack of funding in a further bizarre twist to this sorry saga.
Deborah Orr, columnist with the Independent newspaper was even more direct in her comments. In an article ‘ A lazy and prejudiced approach to crime’ she wrote: “A society in which the police sit around, waiting for crimes to be committed that would fit the profile of their ever-growing pool of suspects if only they weren’t too busy taking DNA from as many people as they could to do a scene of crime check, is just a lazy, dumb and prejudiced one.”
Cold statistics do not bear out any of the exaggerated claims by politicians like Governor Andrew Cuomo or shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper. The present home office minister Lord Henley put people like her in their place when he remarked in the House of Lords: “”Since 2001, more than 4 million people have been added to the DNA database, yet despite that the number of DNA detections has fallen from 33,000 to just over 26,000 in 2009-10. There has been a vast growth in the hoarding of people’s DNA but a decline in the number of convictions. That is an important thing to remember…