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No national DNA database here thanks

January 18th, 2011 Posted in freedom, UK Politics by

Labour MP Kerry McCarthy recently called for all men in Bristol to have their DNA screened in the hope of discovering the murderer of Jo Yeates. Fortunately, it seems that the police have more sense than McCarthy does, and her proposal will not be implemented. Given the costs and practical difficulties of testing thousands of people for the purpose of solving just one criminal case, such a suggestion is clearly unrealistic in practical terms.

However, some argue that if a compulsory national DNA database of every UK citizen was established, far more cases where DNA evidence is left at the scene of the crime could be solved, as the DNA from the crime scene could be matched to the database. This would probably not work as smoothly in practice, and the potential benefits are usually over-stated: DNA evidence has sometimes resulted in wrongful convictions, and multiple matches on DNA databases are often returned. Compiling the database would also be very expensive. But regardless of the effectiveness of a compulsory national DNA database, it should be opposed as a matter of principle by anyone who believes that the state should pay any attention at all to respecting our privacy.

Our DNA is perhaps the ultimate symbol of our individual identity. It can reveal information about us which even we ourselves are not aware of – such as our susceptibility to certain diseases. If we have no right to restrict the state from holding our genetic information (assuming that we have not committed a crime), then we cannot logically be seen as having a right to any privacy at all, and any principled case for upholding our civil liberties must be abandoned. A fundamental liberal value is that the state is the servant, rather than the master of the individual; the creation of a compulsory national DNA database would imply a complete reversal of this notion.

Furthermore, a national DNA database could potentially be turned into a tool of vast oppression. While catching criminals is the standard justification, there is no guarantee that its use would remain limited to this (illegitimate, but not in itself critically threatening) function. Historians such as Jon Agar have noted a tendency of ‘function creep’ in the use of identification technologies; personal information often ends up being used in ways markedly different from those for which it was originally intended. Over the next few decades, scientists look set to make enormous progress in determining which specific genes contribute to various human traits. If the genetic associations of psychopathy or paedophilia (or a number of other characteristics) are determined, I imagine that the majority of people, without fully considering the implications for liberty, would support the state revealing to the general public who has such genes. I also imagine popular support for taking pre-emptive action against people with certain genes; for example, those with a gene associated with paedophilia might be banned from working with children. Once you accept such a principle, the power of the state is effectively unrestricted. Any future government that wished to control which people should and should not reproduce would certainly find a national DNA database very useful indeed.

I was opposed to Labour’s plans for ID cards for many reasons, but one significant reason why I felt it was such an important issue is that I feared that a national DNA database could soon follow. Thankfully, the coalition government have abandoned the ID cards scheme and have also recognised that the state has no right to store the DNA of those who have not been convicted of any crime. But McCarthy’s recent call should remind us that such illiberal principles are still supported, and we must remain vigilant against the potential threat posed by DNA databases and other technologies of identification.

Post by Simon Rigelsford

One Response to “No national DNA database here thanks”

  1. Psi Says:

    How sad she feel the need to pass comment to the press on what is a very raw tradegy for a family.

    Maybe she should learn from Will Durany “nothing is often a good thing to do and always a clever thing to say”