Over at Slate, there is an interesting and somewhat frightening article about the use of DNA in law enforcement in the United States. As in the UK, the US is now collecting DNA from many people who have been arrested, and retaining the samples even from those never charged or convicted. The next step along this path of DNA surveillance seems to be ‘family searches.’ Here, police look for near matches between crime scene DNA and people in their database. When they find a near match, they investigate that person’s family members.
This is worrisome for many reasons. As the article explains, “courts could well be troubled by the open-ended idea that once you’re arrested and cleared, the state can subject you and future generations of your family members to permanent genetic surveillance.” It is quite shocking really. These days, people are getting arrested for such trivialities as taking photos of major landmarks. The idea that this would then subject their entire family to future police DNA surveillance seems deeply illiberal. The article also makes the point that the DNA kept on file may be re-examined later to test for other traits: for instance, if genes that predispose people to committing rape or murder are discovered. Finally, the article mentions some of the major racial implications of the policy: given the high rates of arrest and incarceration in the African American community, members of that ethnic group are unusually likely to be subject to police surveillance via family searches.
Maintaining a functioning justice system in an era of rapidly changing technologies is a huge challenge. Arguably, search and surveillance are the most worrisome new issues. The automation of both means that huge databases can be maintained tracking emails, cell phone locations, DNA, and much else besides. These databases will inevitably be accidentally leaked and intentionally abused. Just another reason why governments are far more dangerous than terrorists.
Given the popularity of being ‘tough on crime,’ it is easy to see why many people favour a system that sacrifices privacy in exchange to a higher chance of catching criminals. There are certainly arguments on both sides. DNA can help to free the wrongfully convicted, as well as increase the conviction rate for crimes like rape, when the justice system generally does a rotten job of catching perpetrators. Arguably, the fairest system would be to put everyone’s DNA on file. At least that way people would be receiving equal treatment. Of course, that requires putting even more trust and power in the hands of governments and security services that have too often abused it in the past.