OZ DNA - Genetic databases not always benign

greenspun.com : LUSENET : TB2K spinoff uncensored : One Thread

Story Link

Genetic databases not always benign

THIS week's mass DNA testing in Wee Waa, NSW, is an alarming development that had to happen sooner or later. Police policy-makers long have wanted to exploit the aftermath of some horrific crime to help secure a regime of significantly extended powers of DNA testing.

Two years ago in the country town, a 91-year-old woman was viciously bashed and raped. It is a crime that causes deep revulsion. But the "voluntary" DNA testing of the town's 600 men throws up the question of what to do about civil liberties in the aftermath of a shocking crime.

Leaving aside the issue of whether the perpetrator is still likely to be in Wee Waa two days - let alone two years - after the crime, mass community DNA testing raises an important and fundamental question about the perennial issue of the balance between police powers and civil liberties.

The privacy and potential abuses of mass community DNA testing is an issue Australian law enforcers do not want to debate.

Detective Superintendent Robin Napper, a UK police officer, has been brought to Australia to help sell the concept of vastly extended DNA databases both in NSW and nationally through the Federal Government's new CrimTrac database scheme. He has waxed lyrical during the past 12 months about greatly extending DNA testing.

NSW Privacy Commissioner Chris Puplick has been critical of the English policeman's proposal. Puplick is no wild-eyed, one-sided campaigner. He is a well-respected former Liberal senator.

Puplick has proposed that the Napper model of a vastly expanded DNA database be overseen by a privacy commissioner or ombudsman in each state and territory to monitor the proper use and destruction of what will be a burgeoning number of DNA records. His proposal has been ignored.

The police lobby and Napper have been running the highly simplistic and dubious line that only the guilty have anything to hide from mass DNA testing.

The police lobby won't address the legitimate concerns relating to misuse and outright abuse of ever-expanding DNA databases.

With hundreds, and eventually hundreds of thousands, of DNA mouth swab samples to be collected and stored, what protections are proposed to prevent sample stuff-ups or, worse, planting of DNA samples by police or even by other criminals?

As Puplick has argued, how easy is it for a criminal to have a drink before a job with an associate? They smoke, the criminal takes his associate's cigarette butt and drops it at the scene. Instant framing.

What about police tainting? Royal commissions and ongoing controversies over police fabrication of evidence have dotted the criminal justice landscape in every state and territory as well as the Australian Federal Police and the National Crime Authority for the past two decades.

Are we seriously expected to believe that the sometimes significant minority of police who fabricate evidence won't do so with DNA samples? Only the blinkered, the foolish and those who are myopically pro police would discount the possibility of fabrication of DNA evidence.

Some time ago, a royal commission in New Zealand had to deal with the serious allegation of police planting forensic evidence at a crime scene. One Australian state is still wrestling with a similar serious allegation.

AND what about the disingenuous police argument that someone who is DNA cleared is no longer a suspect? Tell that to the target of the Claremont serial killing investigation in Perth. He was DNA cleared, but still was aggressively pursued and watched by police.

Police powers in Australia should not be used in community DNA sweeps. Rather, police should respect the fine balance between police powers and preserving valuable civil liberties.

A final word about science and the criminal trial. Juries are bedazzled and beguiled by scientific evidence. Lindy Chamberlain in Australia and the Irish bombing cases in the UK are terrible examples of wrongly handled scientific evidence causing awful miscarriages of justice.

With Australian police calling for a DNA database of hundreds of thousands of samples, mistakes in labelling and lab procedures are inevitable.

Police and forensic scientists don't want to discuss scientific stuff-ups in criminal investigations and trials. It spoils their script and would make juries start to question the accuracy and certainty of scientific evidence.


Like almost everyone here I am appalled by the injury to this elderly victim. Conversely I am even more disturbed by the DNA developments and the role the police are taking. But even more distressing is the almost universal ignoring of those Parliamentarians who ring the alarm. The most distressing of all is the deafening silence from the largest portion of our representatives. It as if by their silence they condone the developing intrusion on our implied liberty.

Any thoughts? If we go down this path you will follow. Maybe you have gone already. Maybe we are following you mob in the 'Land of the Free!'

Regards from OZ

-- Pieter (zaadz@icisp.net.au), April 12, 2000

Moderation questions? read the FAQ