Benefits Of A National DNA Database
Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!
I have received quite a few emails in response to my piece concerning the
benefits of establishing a national DNA database - A
National DNA Database?
The vast majority came from
Americans and, of these, absolutely all of them were negative!
Well, as someone who runs a website which is pretty much devoted to
lambasting governments for abusing their powers - particularly when it comes to
discriminating against men - I am clearly aware that governments are not to be
And I demonstrably spend much of my life trying to point out this fact to
whomsoever will listen to me.
So, I was quite surprised at the volume of protest.
Nevertheless, I still stand by my claim that, on balance, a
national DNA database would turn out to be of tremendous benefit for people.
In my view, the most fundamental of safeguards against any governmental
abuses of power reside in defending these three rights - freedom of speech,
freedom of access to information, and access to communications technology.
Provided that people have these three rights, it is very difficult
for democratic governments to abuse their powers for very long. And it is on
these three rights that civil liberties activists should really focus.
But, returning to the specific issue of a DNA database, the following
points are definitely worth thinking about very carefully.
1. A DNA database would have truly enormous benefits in terms of crime
reduction and medicine. Surely it goes without saying that reducing or
eliminating much of the damage that is done to everyone both by
crime and by disease is an aim worthy of pursuit. And the further spin-offs from
doing this would be just huge.
And the fact that, in practice, some officials might be able
to abuse their powers in some way and so cause harm to some
individuals is utterly insignificant compared to the
benefits that could be brought to everyone by establishing -
with proper safeguards - a national DNA database.
the vast majority of people will end up actually
demanding that information from their own DNA is analysed and stored
2. One way or another, the vast majority of people will end up actually
demanding that information from their own DNA is analysed and stored in order to
protect themselves in some way.
For example, regular screening for various diseases such as cancer costs a
great deal of money and time. In the not-too-distant future, as the medical
technology keeps developing, and as the propensity to succumb to various
diseases and deficiencies can be assessed with reference to DNA, people will get
fed up with submitting their own DNA to various private laboratories in order to
test for this, that, and the other, and they will simply say, "Please, just hold
on to my DNA information and send me an email if there is something new that I
ought to know about."
At first, independent companies will do this sort of thing. But, before
long, poorer folk will start saying, "Hey, what about me? Doesn't my DNA get
analysed? Why doesn't government take my DNA and save YOU, the taxpayer, a lot
of money by checking out my genetic health propensities. Play fair guys."
And then, perhaps, the government will be forced to step in to provide
such people with a similar service - even if only to save themselves a large
amount of dollars.
Similarly, when the technology develops to the point where, say, a DNA
identification can be made simply by sticking a finger on a screen - or
something like that - people will start demanding that this sort of system is
used to benefit them in some way.
You don't want to queue at the airport? Then stick your finger on this so
that we can identify your DNA quickly.
You don't want us to search your house and take you in for questioning in
connection with that rape down the road, then stick your finger on this so that
we can quickly eliminate you from our enquiries.
People get hassled by officials mostly because they cannot
be identified with certainty, not because they can!
People get hassled by officials mostly because they cannot be identified
with certainty, not because they can.
And, given that the vast majority of people want to be protected from the
negative consequences - stemming from both official sources and otherwise - of
the nefarious activities of the few, they will eventually begin to
see the advantages to themselves of having themselves easily and accurately
identifiable in some way. And so they will demand such a thing.
As another example, imagine two kinds of credit card machines. The first
one is of the type that we have today. The second one requires you to stick your
finger on the screen, and it can identify you perfectly. Which type of card
would you want to possess in order to protect your money from card theft?
Take the case of mobile phones. They can be used by the police to track
individuals. But have the people refused to buy them because of this? No. They
are sold by the million. The huge demand for mobile phones exists because they
are so damn useful - even though the people who own them know that
they can be tracked by using them.
It is in this kind of manner that the people themselves will start to
bring about the creation of DNA databases. They will find them useful - to
protect themselves from crime, from disease and from hassle.
And, eventually, they will demand such a system.
3. Bearing in mind the enormous damage that is done to so many people
through crime and disease, it seems somewhat trivial, if not decidedly selfish,
to try to thwart the development of a system that could prevent so much of this.
Perhaps working on a cancer ward for a week or two would help to open the eyes
of those who would oppose a DNA database to the very real suffering and despair
of those who are ill and who are losing all hope - and there are millions
if only the criminals could have been prevented
earlier from embarking upon their criminal careers.
Perhaps working inside a prison for a week or two, or living in a
crime-infested community, would help to open the eyes of those who would
oppose a DNA database to how different things could have been if only the
criminals could have been prevented earlier from embarking upon their
Do we want to see millions of people every year in the west dying slowly
from lung, bowel or breast cancer, and a host of other horrible diseases? Do we
want to see more people having to live surrounded by more crime?
(Powerful stuff, eh?)
Somewhere in the future there will be created at least something like a
national DNA database, because, bit by bit, the people will demand it. Perhaps
being registered on this database will be optional for people, but, in the long
run, they will probably be clambering to get themselves on to it. Why? Because
by doing this they will be better able to protect themselves from crime, from
disease and from hassle.
Indeed, mothers will probably start demanding that their babies are
registered with such a database as soon as they are born so that they can
ensure the best protection for their offspring.
But, yes. Some officials will attempt to abuse their powers
in connection with such a database. And it is up to activists to keep their eyes
open to make sure that they don't!
4. Our societies should be powering ahead with the development of medical
science, communications technology and the spread of information. And though
there are indeed dangers and difficulties that will need to be faced by doing
this - and so caution is definitely extremely important - the alternative seems
consider the dangers of allowing terrorists with
future-created biological WMD's to wander freely throughout
As just one example, consider the dangers of allowing terrorists with
future-created biological WMD's to wander freely throughout the
And don't just think about the 'disease' itself. Think also about the
chain reactions. The panic. The fear. The breakdowns. The political
repercussions. The possible retaliations. The turmoil. The implications for the
These things are truly horrible.
And then, before long, people will begin to beg for a DNA database so that
terrorists are more likely to be identified and caught, and so that the
scientists can come up with better ways to protect them.
In order to avoid such a catastrophe, surely, we need to keep ahead in the
race to understand the biology and to identify the 'enemies'?
5. USA Police here are so intent on catching a suspect in the slayings of four women
that they have resorted to pulling over white General Motors pickup trucks and
asking the drivers to submit to DNA tests. Such investigative methods have
provoked protests from civil libertarians.
how's about civil liberties activists considering the
civil liberties of the dead women, eh?
Well, how's about civil liberties activists considering the civil
liberties of the dead women, eh? - as well as the civil liberties of their
And what about the civil liberties of everyone who is, say, too frightened
to go out at night because of such things?
A national DNA database would almost certainly have helped to prevent the
deaths of three of these women - if not all four of them, given that criminals
such as these usually have a string of previous offences entailing violence.
A national DNA database would also mean that all these truck drivers would
not now find themselves being hassled into giving over their DNA.
when civil liberties activists blindly oppose the
creation of such a database one really has to ask them whose liberties,
exactly, are they actually protecting?
And so when civil liberties activists blindly oppose the creation of such
a database one really has to ask them whose liberties, exactly, are they
They are certainly not protecting the liberties of those who are the
victims of serious crimes - or of future terrorist attacks - nor the
liberties of those who will necessarily be harassed by officials who are
eager to discover and capture the perpetrators of such crimes.
6. Power is always potentially dangerous. It can be used for good or for
bad. And this is why it is so important that those people and those
organisations that have power are continually monitored and scrutinised very
If we can achieve this and ensure that people
have freedom of speech, freedom of access to information, and access to
communications technology then there should be nothing to fear from a DNA
database - or, indeed, from many other things that civil liberties activists are
prone to complain about e.g. CCTV, face recognition, etc.
If civil liberties activists stopped trying to block the accumulation of
valid information and instead turned their attention to countering any possible
abuse or unfairness that could take place as a consequence of it being obtained,
they would get far more support from the public, and they would help pave the
way for a vastly improved future.
7. Judging by the emails, the greatest fear surrounding a national DNA
database is that, sometime in the future, a government might use it to label
people in some way - and then do heinous things to them.
But, in many ways, it is already too late to worry about this. The
DNA technology that could help governments to do such a thing is already here.
DNA technology is spreading like wildfire all over the place, so what is
to stop governments from abusing their access to DNA information right
Let's consider some form of ethnic cleansing based
Hmm. Let's consider some form of ethnic cleansing based on DNA. Well, at
the moment, governments would certainly not be so accurate in their selection of
ethnic targets in the first
rounding up stage. For example, in Phase One of the operation, they could round
up whomsoever they first thought
were, say, 'gipsies' - or whatever group that they wanted to round up - and
then, simply test their DNA. And then, in Phase Two of the operation, they could
just take to the gas chambers the ones who had the targeted DNA.
In other words, protesting against the construction of a national DNA
database on the grounds that the government might use it to harm certain groups
of people identifiable by their DNA is a bit like arguing that we need to shut
the stable door even though the horse has already bolted.
8. Unless we eliminate across the world all DNA research
and development, governments (and even terrorist groups) are already in - or
very close to being in - a position to do big bad things with it vis-a-vis 'labeling'
and ethnic cleansing etc
And a national DNA database would help us to keep ahead in the race to
protect ourselves - in very many ways.
Putting this another way: Civil liberties activists need to ask
themselves this question. Do we want the Americans and the free-speaking
world to develop the greatest understanding of this very powerful
technology, or would we prefer some other group to get ahead in the race for
it - perhaps the Chinese or the Russians or the Iranians?
months before 11 September, Australian scientists published a paper describing
how they had unintentionally created a "supervirus" that, instead of sterilising
mice as intended, killed every last one. Could this information help someone to
create a human supervirus in the same way?
Further, given the possibilities on the horizon when it comes to
biological warfare, it is imperative that we get ahead in this particular game.
9. It is no use civil liberties activists burying their heads in the sand
and trying to thwart the development of such a huge resource for good.
DNA databases are eventually going to be developed
right across the world.
DNA databases are eventually going to be developed right across the
world. The people will demand them because so much good can come from
them. And by opposing such databases, civil libertarians will simply drive
people away from supporting their other very noble and worthwhile aims.
Further, they will retard the relative progress only of their own
countries by stirring up negativity toward such databases.
Instead of running scared of this type of technology they should welcome
it with open arms, take the bull by the horns, and make damn sure that it is
only used for the good. But if they successfully demonise it in the eyes of the
public, it will simply go underground and carry on being developed anyway - with
other nations getting ahead.
It is only 25 years ago that there were great fears concerning the growth
of computer technologies in the workplace. People will be put out of work, they
argued. There will be no jobs for anyone. We will all be disempowered.
But just look at what tremendous good computers are doing for us.
Over and over again throughout recent history, science and technology have
completely revolutionised the way that we live for the good - from the printing
of books, to the industrial revolution, to the development of computers and
We live far better lives now than did all the generations that went
before. We live longer, healthier lives, and we do not have to toil in
such terrible conditions just in order to survive. Science and technology,
on balance, have done us a tremendous amount of good. And they
seem recently to have done this rather quickly.
Finally, it is worth pointing out that the expertise required to create,
maintain and operate such a database will be found in medical scientists,
computer experts, software programmers and biologists. Rarely are such people
driven by politics or the need for power. And so, in some fairly significant
way, such a database would represent a shift in power away from those whose work
priorities usually involve violence or coercion.
a DNA database would shift power away from the very
groups of people ... that civil liberties activists often fear the most.
And, of course, a very trivial example of this would be the fact
that we wouldn't need so many police officers harassing the drivers of
pickup trucks in their search for a serial killer - as per the article
above - because they would have caught him ages ago. In other words, a DNA
database would shift power away from the very groups of people - in this
case, police officers - that civil liberties activists often fear the
In summary: If numerous independent and civil liberties bodies are able
to monitor and scrutinise very closely what is done with any information
that is gathered from a DNA database, then the benefits deriving from such
a database have the potential to change our lives enormously for the