Strathclyde Police, Scotland,
March 20, 2001 4:02 AM   Subscribe

Strathclyde Police, Scotland, given the right to take DNA samples from anyone arrested. Previously DNA samples were taken only from those suspected of murders, sex attacks or serious assaults.

Sir John Orr, Chief Constable of Strathclyde Police, denied that compulsory testing would infringe people's human rights. He said: "The tests are not invasive, not intrusive and not against civil liberties. The vast majority of people will be asked only to give a simple mouth swab, which can be done in seconds. This is a magnificent tool which will help detect crime and the public should be very pleased."

Read: you have nothing to fear if you're innocent...
posted by methylsalicylate (22 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

Why is this any different - at least, philosophically - from finger-printing people? It provides for more precise identification than the "art" of finger-printing, but it's no more an invasion of privacy.
posted by m.polo at 4:51 AM on March 20, 2001

Why is this any different - at least, philosophically - from finger-printing people?

Maybe it isn't. Of course one could always say that dna is easier to database and mine than fingerprints are (could be wrong here - I don't read Fingerprint Whorld often). And that dna tells so much more about a person than
simply name and address.

But hey, I'm no expert. I figured you guys were.
posted by methylsalicylate at 5:13 AM on March 20, 2001

In other news, Scottish dogs could be given ID tattoos: The Scottish Parliament is due to launch an inquiry into an identification scheme for dogs, involving microchips and tattoos. The inquiry will also consider setting up a national database.

Animal testing?
posted by frednorman at 5:13 AM on March 20, 2001

In the U.S., the commonwealth of Virginia and keeps a complete DNA database of every criminal convicted of a crime. It has allowed police in that state to greatly reduce the number of rapes by quickly identifying suspects [many of whom were previously incarcerated on burglary charges]. I have some civil liberty concerns about wholesale databasing of the entire population, but I agree with the fingerprinting analogy.
posted by darren at 5:30 AM on March 20, 2001

Why is this any different - at least, philosophically - from finger-printing people?

Because if someone with enough knowledge has your dna, they can (or very soon will be able to) clone you. But why would anyone want to clone people that have been arrested? Paranoid thought of the day - what if some criminal mastermind somehow gets his hands on a database full of murderer and rapist DNA? A modern-day Fagan with his gang of genetically-selected evil clones?!

A bit silly, I know....and in fact I think the database would contain genetic markers rather than the full dna code of a person. If this is the case, I would agree with it for suspected rapists, etc. But not for someone who was jaywalking or some such thing. It seems like there should be a very, very good reason to be forced to give up something as private and personal as your DNA to the government!!
posted by u.n. owen at 5:46 AM on March 20, 2001

If this is the case, I would agree with it for suspected rapists, etc.

Not all suspected rapists turn out to be rapists (not all rapists are convicted, either; but that's another conversation). It seems quite a different thing to take dna samples from *convicted* felons, as in darren's Virginia example, vs. anyone who is arrested.
posted by methylsalicylate at 6:14 AM on March 20, 2001

Why not do this - take the data represented by DNA (call it 8 bits per codon, just to keep it simple), and encrypt it one way. This way, a new sample from a crime scene similarly encrypted and the encrypted data is compared. If two encrypted numbers match, they probably came from the same source.

At this point, the police have the name of a suspect from which they can continue to check on means, motive, opportunity and all that. If DNA is the only evidence that they have then with a suspect in hand, they could do a direct comparison and destroy the suspect's sample afterwards since it's the results that matter.
posted by plinth at 6:36 AM on March 20, 2001

The police wouldn't really have the entire sequence of your genome--that would be prohibitively expensive in terms of time and data storage.

I think what they do when they do DNA tests in criminal cases is they analyze a sample of DNA by chopping it up using these enzymes ("restriction enzymes") that specifically cut DNA at short, defined sequences of nucleotides. Then they analyze the relative sizes of the various fragments. Since everyone has different DNA, everyone will have a different cleavage pattern.

And even if they did have your genetic sequence in some database, they still wouldn't be able to clone you. We can only synthesize sequences of DNA about 100 nucleotides long right now--maybe splice a few dozen of these together if you use some newer tricks. But there's no way you'd be able to synthesize something the size of a mammalian genome.
posted by shylock at 9:54 AM on March 20, 2001

I think its dangerous for your genetic code to belong to the government. What if it gets in the hands of Health Insurance providers a la Gattica? What pressures will society put upon individuals to genetically engineer their children?
posted by xammerboy at 10:04 AM on March 20, 2001

Huh? From what I've seen over the Dolly and Starlink hue and cry, society is mainly applying pressure to not genetically engineer anything--much less our children.
posted by Skot at 10:22 AM on March 20, 2001

Everybody wants the guilty to be caught. It is preying upon the gullible to sell this as just greater efficiency. Why now swab every newborn? I don't understand the I haven't done anything, so I have nothing to fear crowd. I always approach it like I haven't done anything wrong, and it is up to you to prove otherwise. I certainly don't intend to let anybody make me spit in a cup because I jaywalk. I would never have a second thought about my ability to pass a drug test, and yet I will never take one, and will refuse any job that requires it of me. Having nothing to fear does not mean I should be willing to roll over and submit to anything asked, what good does being innocent do me if I am probed and filmed every second of my life?
posted by thirteen at 3:09 PM on March 20, 2001

No kidding, Thirteen - besides, the way things are going, I'm sure something or other that I enjoy doing will be illegal before long, and then I'll be a criminal. Anticipating that more or less inevitable day, I want suspected criminals to be treated rather well, and have their civil liberties violated as little as possible, thanks very much.

posted by Mars Saxman at 4:22 PM on March 20, 2001

Bravo, thirteen. If the government has the ability to arbitrarily define what I do to be criminal (say, if I protest at a politician's inauguration), I want their ability to enforce that definition to be clearly limited.
posted by rodii at 4:52 PM on March 20, 2001

You know, I've noticed whenever anyone starts talking about biochemistry and biotechology, people start imagining all sorts of bizzare scenarios. The kind of information the police can get out of your DNA is no more an invasion of privacy than society already tolerates in the form of fingerprinting. They can't really tell anything about you personally, unless you've got a known marker for a specific genetic disease. They can't tell things like your IQ or personal tastes or, really, even your hair color. They most certainly can't clone you, nor does the technology exist for evil scientists to genetically engineer an army of supervillains. Relax. We're not on the brink of a Matrix-like future.
posted by shylock at 6:07 PM on March 20, 2001

than society already tolerates in the form of fingerprinting.

If it makes you feel any better, I'm just as uncomfortable about the fact that my fingerprints are on file with the FBI (thanks a lot, mom and dad) as I am about the idea of having identifiable bits of my genes on file there too. I *don't* like fingerprinting or any other form of biometrics. Leave me alone and let me be anonymous, please.

posted by Mars Saxman at 6:35 PM on March 20, 2001

shylock: thanks for your calming words, everything's okay and there's nothing to see here-style.
They most certainly can't clone you....perhaps not now. But the human genome project has caused the entire genome to be mapped, and every day scientists are at work to map those genes to personality. Recently a pair of genes for schizophrenia was discovered. And according to a quote from that link to wired magazine, 'the hunt for culpable genes is still on'.
I'm not saying that right now someone can clone us or understand our personalities from our dna. But they're working on it.
We can only synthesize sequences of DNA about 100 nucleotides long right now--maybe splice a few dozen of these together if you use some newer tricks.
I think the key word in that statement is 'right now'. I think we also need to make laws that look forward into the future.
posted by u.n. owen at 12:30 AM on March 21, 2001

Oh, and..."Two fertility scientists based in the United States announced that they expected to grow the first human clone within two years" from this article at Harpers
posted by u.n. owen at 12:52 AM on March 21, 2001

You know, I echo concerns about fingerprinting and ubiquitous invasions of privacy and all these very, well, Orwellian sorts of things . . . but then I kind of calm down. Maybe Mars and thirteen will accuse me of complacency and yell at me about the continuing erosion of civil rights and how the Government will soon get me, but . . . I'm not really that important. I don't know; on some level I think I should be worried about vague, mysterious "stuff" that could happen, stuff that I might do if I perhaps lost my fucking mind, but geez . . . I don't mean to sound callous, but what are you guys up to that makes you so worried? Threads like this conjure up images of shadowy government figures peeling skin flakes off of my discarded pennies so they can find out whether I download pornography (which I do, happily) and then inform Bristol-Meyers-Squibb-Gap-Coca-Cola that I'm a disgruntled pre-Apocalyptic can-stacker who really identifies with the post-"Bleach" Nirvana era.

I don't know. I may be playing into some smoke-veiled bad-ass-ness as I type this. And let me just say in my defense that I will never, ever submit to a "required" drug test, but that's mainly because I think it's a complete inversion of the presumption of innocence. But another part of me doesn't actually believe that the government or whatever boneheaded group of global conspiracists is quite capable of pulling off the types of things being discussed. Individuals can be scary-smart. Vast groups are hostage to their weakest link. And those weak links are usually bureaucrats. When was the last time you met a scary-smart bureaucrat?

In sum, I see where you folks are coming from. I guess I just don't share the paranoia (I know, that's a loaded term, and I don't mean it to offend--I just couldn't think of a better one).
posted by Skot at 1:07 AM on March 21, 2001

Skot, I agree with most of what you're saying. I don't think I personally am important enough to the government for them to want to clone me, etc. That would be real, scary paranoia.
But I do think that an ounce of 'paranoia' about these types of issues is worth more than a pound of 'oh shit, we should've thought about that before it was too late'. And I definitely don't believe in trustingly putting this kind of power into the hands of government.
posted by u.n. owen at 2:27 AM on March 21, 2001

Non-Brits won't really be aware that the "DHA database" issue is part of a wider assault on civil liberties bound up in the Criminal Justice Bill (links to a corrupt PDF file, for conspiracy theorists) currently under debate in Parliament. It's not so much the nature of the evidence that concerns people, as the police's desire to retain it in perpetuo. After all, there's nothing Plod would like more than a CCTVed, DNA-databased world, where officers could monitor innocent people from the control room rather than having to go out and catch criminals.

After all, the Bill is simply an attempt to clear the police after the fact, given that they currently hold thousands of samples illegally.
posted by holgate at 4:53 AM on March 21, 2001

I think there's two main reasons so many are against DNA samples:

1) Plain old civil liberties. You shouldn't willingly hand over to the government any more power than the minimum necessary for it to carry out its prescribed functions. Remember: Once you cede a liberty or a right to your government, you will never get it back, no matter how bad a decision that may turn out to have been umpteen years down the line.

2) Rational technology fears. Fingerprints aren't good for much besides fingering suspects. They can have your prints on file, but those aren't of a whole lot of use until something illegal occurs and the cops go in and start lifting prints from the crime scene. No matter how corrupt the police and/or government might get, they won't be able to eke out many other sneaky uses for fingerprint files. But there's any number of things they could do with DNA profiles, and the possibilities get broader every day. Just one example: They could start cross-referencing the DNA data with known markers for genetic diseases, and then sell the results to insurance companies and potential employers to make a few bucks. And the insurance companies and employers will then use that information against you. (Or, in the UK, use it to cut down on NHS expenses.) Slippery slope.

Sure, they say they don't do such things. And maybe they don't right this moment. But eventually someone, somewhere in the whole bureaucracy of government, will do such a thing. And once they do it, it's done and they will never try to put the genie back in the bottle. Look at holgate's link; the government MO is always to do first and find a way to make it legal later. So we shouldn't even give them the opportunity.
posted by aaron at 6:25 AM on March 21, 2001

Exactly, aaron: one thing that particularly concerned me when reading MPs' discussions on DNA sampling was that common law precedent makes illegally-stored "human samples" admissible in court. Which is astounding.

As Simon Hughes of the Lib Dems said:

"We have not faced the question whether it is appropriate to move to a society in which the police can, without the individual's consent, hold such information. It is a large debate and goes to the heart of what information on the individual should be held by the authorities. Although I understand where the proposal comes from and the reason why the police and the National Criminal Intelligence Service would argue persuasively for its inclusion, that does not justify taking a decision of this magnitude in this way, at this time, without a wider debate."

One particular concern of the Criminal Justice Bill is that once consent is given to the taking of a "human sample", that consent is presumed to be given in perpetuo, for whatever use the relevant authorities deem fit. Also, the Bill amends existing law to allow unspecified international law-enforcement agencies to make profiling enquiries against the police database.

It's not as if Britain hasn't had enough scandal surrounding the surreptitious retention and supply of organs in hospitals. About time, I think, to embody Locke's "Every Man is a Property in his own Person" in law.
posted by holgate at 6:39 AM on March 21, 2001

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