A Perfect Identifier

By Bob Jones

DNA testing helps British police fight crime, but will liberty be another casualty?

The new millennium may not be a good one for British crime novelists. Their colorful sleuths–doddering Miss Marple, dapper Hercule Poirot, even brilliant Sherlock Holmes–would be completely out of their element in the Forensic Science Service headquarters, the new high temple of British crime–solving.

There's nothing glamorous or sexy about the nondescript detectives who work in this nondescript building in a grimey neighborhood on the south bank of the River Thames. They sit in a little L–shaped room, 10 of them in all, completely anonymous under white lab coats, white surgical masks, and white hairnets. They spend the day probing with long needles into little glass vials arranged neatly in yellow plastic trays, making some notes, then probing some more.

It's not the most exciting detective work in the world, but it may well be the most effective. That's because, in five years, the faceless technician/detectives at the FSS have provided local police with some 68,000 prime suspects in crimes ranging from burglary to rape and murder. And they did it without a single car chase, interrogation, or even fingerprint. Just those long needles probing relentlessly into the suspects' biological essence–their DNA.

A chemical found in the cells of the human body, DNA carries genetic information from one generation to the next. Translated by the body, it determines an individual's physical characteristics, from eye color to blood–sugar levels. Translated by the technicians at the FSS, DNA provides a unique genetic fingerprint that would occur only one time in a billion.

No one has been more aggressive in using these genetic fingerprints than the British. Five years ago, Parliament cleared the way for the first national DNA database by reclassifying a person's genetic material as "non–intimate." That allowed police to take a DNA sample–usually by swabbing the inside of the cheek–from criminal suspects. The database, which celebrated its fifth anniversary on April 10, currently holds genetic profiles for about 750,000 Britons, with about 30,000 more being added each month.

FSS maintains public support for the database by cranking out press releases touting its effectiveness in solving high–profile crimes. In 1998, for instance, DNA evidence helped to convict Keith Samuels of a series of brutal rapes dating back to 1984. In another case, the body of a woman found in a stone quarry led to a mass DNA screening of some 4,500 men living in nearby towns. The killer finally was convicted after the wholesale screening eliminated thousands of names from the suspect list.

Results like those have kept the national database remarkably free of controversy. Still, not everyone is a fan. Across town at the London School of Economics, Simon Davies tries to alert his countrymen to what he sees as an assault on their privacy.

"We're talking ultimately about a technology that will be used to perfectly identify a vast number of citizens," said Mr. Davies, the U.K. director of Privacy International, a watchdog group. "All forms of surveillance are lubricated by fear of the most heinous crimes, and authorities will justify the technology in terms of rare and spectacular and awful crimes which guarantee public support."

Mr. Davies and other privacy advocates have no problem with using DNA in connection with serious crimes. The problem is what he calls "technology creep"–once a technology like DNA profiling is in place, it inexorably seeps into ever–broader areas of life.

This has already happened in the U.K., Mr. Davies points out. The original law authorizing the British database specified only a narrow range of crimes in which DNA testing was allowed. But police in the Scottish city of Edinburgh now test every motorist stopped for speeding–and Prime Minister Tony Blair recently announced that he wants police in other jurisdictions to follow suit. If the police comply, "Half the male population will likely be tested within 10 years," Mr. Davies warned.

Denesh Kara, an enthusiastic, soft–spoken supervisor at FSS headquarters, sees such a future scenario in purely practical terms. "The current statistic is, if you load a crime scene sample onto the database, there is a 40 percent chance that a suspect will be nominated. By having a bigger pool of samples, you're increasing that chance of a match from 40 percent to 50, 60, even 70 percent. And ultimately, if you have the entire population on [the database], then you have the chance of perfect results."

But perfect results would hardly equal a perfect world, in Simon Davies's view. Where a scientist like Mr. Kara sees only mathematical probabilities, Mr. Davies sees philosophical dilemmas.

"Government will always take freedom away," he said. "It's the nature of government.... Because [DNA] so perfectly identifies an individual, it eliminates anonymity, which is central to freedom. The idea that I can remain anonymous is an absolutely central right in any democracy."

While he readily admits that convicted criminals lose certain rights–including a measure of privacy–he fears that DNA profiling will quickly find its way into the private lives of people who have done absolutely nothing wrong. He points out that all European law protects individual rights unless a vaguely defined "public interest" demands an exception. "The problem is, the 'public interest' keeps changing. Today, crime. Tomorrow, public health. The next day, perhaps, genetic mapping." As governments find more and more excuses to justify DNA profiling, individuals will find themselves with less and less privacy.

Already the signs are pointing in that direction. In her last speech to the nation, Queen Elizabeth announced legislation that would presume men accused of child abandonment to be guilty if they refused to give DNA samples. Even more troubling, New Zealand's Human Rights Commission announced last month that it is considering whether to allow insurance companies to perform DNA tests to show whether policy holders are predisposed to genetic illnesses such as cystic fibrosis or Huntington's disease.

Americans are far from immune to the global trends. Currently, only convicted criminals can be required to give DNA, but that may soon change. At the urging of police organizations, Attorney General Janet Reno recently proposed that DNA be taken from anyone merely suspected of a crime.

"There's the creep," said Lisa Dean, a privacy expert at the Free Congress Foundation, echoing Simon Davies's fear of technology creep. And, she points out, while Britain at least has laws on the books governing the use of DNA, the U.S. Congress has said nothing on the subject. No rules on when to take DNA samples. No rules on how to use the information. No rules on how long profiles remain on file. And, most troubling perhaps, no rules on what to do with the actual, physical sample–human cells that could, conceivably, be used for any number of scientific experiments without the permission of the donor.

Miss Dean says Congress must start to address the issue quickly, because President Clinton's executive branch is currently calling all the shots regarding DNA. Without laws in place, she fears for the future of DNA samples currently being collected. "Look at the trends and the potential," she urged. "Given the collusion between the public and private sectors on things like credit scores, why should we expect DNA information to be kept safe and private?"

Misuse of DNA profiles could lead to "genetic discrimination" such as denial of health insurance or improper hiring and firing decisions, she warns. Worse, she sees genetic information as a powerful weapon in the hands of a government bent on control. Once you've been permanently identified in a government database, she says, your identity can then be tied to a whole range of privileges from banking to travel to health care. "But the same government that gives you those privileges can also take them away."

How distant–even paranoid–are such concerns? Just a few years ago, public outrage would likely have stopped any widespread identification efforts in its tracks. But today, thanks to worry over illegal immigration, even many conservatives have bought into the idea of a national ID card. In the armed forces, meanwhile, where DNA tests are required of all soldiers, genetic profiles become a part of each individual's permanent records. Already, the trends and the technology seem to be converging.

With its late start and relatively decentralized government, the United States is at least five years behind Britain in building a national DNA database. But the British lead is unlikely to last. "It's important that Americans recognize that the pattern established here–the trends of ubiquity–will occur in the U.S.," Mr. Davies said. "I see the database being used ultimately to identify any aberrant individual in society. Anyone outside the bell curve of normality will find themselves in the database.... And God knows what a government would do in a technological world if it had a perfect identifier."

Reprinted by permission of World Magazine, copyright 2000.