Monday, April 20, 2009

Open Wide and Say Aaah

F.B.I. and States Vastly Expand DNA Databases:

Law enforcement officials are vastly expanding their collection of DNA to include millions more people who have been arrested or detained but not yet convicted. The move, intended to help solve more crimes, is raising concerns about the privacy of petty offenders and people who are presumed innocent.

Until now, the federal government genetically tracked only convicts. But starting this month, the Federal Bureau of Investigation will join 15 states that collect DNA samples from those awaiting trial and will collect DNA from detained immigrants — the vanguard of a growing class of genetic registrants.

The F.B.I., with a DNA database of 6.7 million profiles, expects to accelerate its growth rate from 80,000 new entries a year to 1.2 million by 2012 — a 17-fold increase. F.B.I. officials say they expect DNA processing backlogs — which now stand at more than 500,000 cases — to increase.

Law enforcement officials say that expanding the DNA databanks to include legally innocent people will help solve more violent crimes. They point out that DNA has helped convict thousands of criminals and has exonerated more than 200 wrongfully convicted people.
It's enough the chill the blood, especially the "solve more violent crimes" part. Using that logic, we could simply demand DNA of every single person in the U.S. and have a clearance rate of 100% for all violent crimes.

But then there's the problem of what critics call "the Constitution."

Criminal justice experts cite Fourth Amendment privacy concerns and worry that the nation is becoming a genetic surveillance society.

“DNA databases were built initially to deal with violent sexual crimes and homicides — a very limited number of crimes,” said Harry Levine, a professor of sociology at City University of New York who studies policing trends. “Over time more and more crimes of decreasing severity have been added to the database. Cops and prosecutors like it because it gives everybody more information and creates a new suspect pool.”

“What we object to — and what the Constitution prohibits — is the indiscriminate taking of DNA for things like writing an insufficient funds check, shoplifting, drug convictions,” said Michael Risher, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union.
The objection is reasonable, since technically DNA can only be used to solve crimes where two people interact violently. And because 87% of all criminal activity is not related to violence in the least, the DNA swabs would seem to represent another power grab by Big Government, according to critics.

But the advocates for increase DNA swabbing seem to have momentum on their side.
Mitch Morrissey, [a] Denver district attorney and an advocate for more expansive DNA sampling. “It saves women’s lives.”

Mr. Morrissey pointed to Britain, which has fewer privacy protections than the United States and has been taking DNA upon arrest for years. It has a population of 61 million — and 4.5 million DNA profiles. “About 8 percent of the people commit about 70 percent of your crimes, so if you can get the majority of that community, you don’t have to do more than that,” he said.

In the United States, 8 percent of the population would be roughly 24 million people.
Paging George Orwell; Mr. Orwell to client relations.

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