February 29, 2024

Obama endorses DNA databank for crime

Could be human rights violation

In an apparent concession to populist
politics President
Barack Obama used the popular Fox Network show “America’s Most Wanted”

to give his personal backing to taking and retaining DNA samples from
individuals arrested for a crime but not convicted. The show’s host described
it as “no different than fingerprinting or a booking photo”.

Is this consistent with human rights? Experts
on genetic testing are saying no. Writing in The Nation, Patricia J.
Williams, a law professor at Columbia University derided it as a “patently
false” and dangerous idea which risks condemning innocent people:

“The collection of DNA has mushroomed in
the past five years. California has the third-largest forensic DNA database of
any government entity in the world (behind Britain and the US government). All
three collect DNA from arrestees regardless of guilt. All three have databases
highly skewed by race and class. In Britain 42 percent of black men have had
their DNA sampled and stored. Until recently, however, forensic DNA samples
were retained only from convicted felons who had committed violent or sexual
offenses. With very little oversight or consistency, local rules for collection
in criminal cases have expanded haphazardly, often including anyone who is
arrested even mistakenly. People may challenge the retention of their DNA and
sue to have it expunged, but that process can take years.”

In fact, as Osagie K. Obasogie, of the
Center for Genetics and Society, in California, points out in the Los
Angeles Times
, DNA testing is not completely reliable. Even though
everyone’s DNA is unique, current tests still have a considerable margin for
error. “The entire enterprise of DNA databases is based on the idea that no two
people share the same profile. But Arizona’s database of 65,000-plus entries
was shown to have more than 100 profiles that were similar enough for many
experts to consider them a “match.” 

Michael Cook
DNA data base