As if President Obama didn’t have enough on his platter, he’s calling for accused criminals to have their DNA samples collected and stored in a national database, whether they’re convicted or not. He’s a brave man to open that can of worms.
Just putting the words “DNA” and “database” together is like a tripwire to the crowd that still thinks Obama was secretly born in Kenya and has death panels in his health care overhaul.
And they’re not alone. Just think: Will those Americans who bitterly oppose registration of their guns, for example, go along quietly with the registration of their genetic codes?
That’s not quite what Obama is calling for, but it’s a short slide down the slippery slope from keeping the DNA profiles of arrestees to keeping the profiles of everybody. And you don’t have to be a so-called “birther” or “gun nut” to care about your privacy.
In an interview with the president on the 100th episode of “America’s Most Wanted,” host John Walsh strongly suggested collecting the DNA profiles of arrestees into a single, national database.
Obama agreed that national data collection is “the right thing to do.” Individual states may have a database, he said, “but if they’re not sharing it with the state next door, you’ve got a guy from Illinois driving over into Indiana, and they’re not talking to each other.”
For the past 12 years the federal government has collected DNA in the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), which was launched to collect the codes of convicted sex offenders and certain other classes of felons. More recently the FBI has begun to include the DNA profiles of arrestees from more than a dozen states that currently collect DNA upon arrest, whether there is a conviction or not.
Walsh likes that idea and wants to see it go nationwide. After all, DNA codes can help us catch criminals, clear the wrongfully convicted, find lost children or catch illegal immigrants, among other possibilities. “It’s no different than fingerprinting or a booking photo,” Walsh said. “Since those states have been doing it, it has cleared 200 people that are innocent from jail.”
It didn’t take more than two days after Obama made his views known before the New York Times ran a well-reasoned op-d by Yale law student Michael Seringhaus calling for the government to keep every American’s DNA profile on file, arrested or not.
The advantages sound obvious, especially to fans of the CSI-type television detective shows that make DNA work look easy. But before embracing a national database we should look closely at how well they’re working out in our states and in Great Britain, which has been collecting DNA since 1995 on arrestees, including juveniles.
Civil liberties and civil rights groups here and in the United Kingdom have objected to potential privacy invasions and the skewed racial impact. In an age when we Americans have seen lost laptops disappear with the personal information of thousands of people, I understand the concern of the Brits.
In the United States, since blacks and Latinos are more likely to be arrested, rightly or wrongly, they are more likely to have their DNA sampled. Troubling as that may be, especially to me as an African American, it is not a strong argument against data collection as a crime-fighting tool. After all, in the felonies associated with these arrests, blacks and Latinos are more likely to be the victims of the crime — or, in some cases, wrongfully convicted for lack of DNA evidence.
We should all be interested in effective law enforcement, regardless of color. With that in mind, a more urgent problem is the growing logjam in crime labs across the country, resulting ironically from the growing popularity of DNA collecting and testing.
The collection of DNA samples for various reasons and in various states is growing faster than the ability of crime labs and record keepers to keep up.
From a scientific viewpoint, Walsh is right; DNA data collection doesn’t have to be any different from fingerprinting or a booking photo. But as a political, privacy and crime-fighting issue, I think we still have a long and necessary debate ahead of us.
— Clarence Page is a columnist for Tribune Media Services. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.