Most of our readers here at The Chicago Boyz not only hail from the United States, but also identify themselves as Libertarians. You guys don’t know how good you’ve got it.
Why do I say that? Libertarians, big “L” or otherwise, seem to be concerned with keeping civil liberties intact. Vigilance must be eternal in order to keep the government from overreaching and trampling on our freedoms. For example, if the FBI insisted on taking and filing the fingerprints of everyone, including newborns, it would be seen as an infringement of privacy. There is just no reasonable justification for the expense and trouble of compiling a database of average law abiding citizens.
All well and good in the good ol’ US of A, but there is a rather alarming development in Old Blighty that has caused me to sit up and take notice.
It seems that the Home Office in Great Britain has compiled the largest DNA database in the entire world, not only in raw numbers but also in the percentage of population which has been included. According to the official figures found on the government webpage linked to above, “By the end of 2005 over 3.4 million DNA profiles were held on the database…” This dwarfs the approximately 1.5 million profiles that are to be found in all the DNA databases in the United States, even though we have about five times the population. The Home Office proudly claims that 5.2% of the entire population of England now has a copy of their DNA filed away in their database, and it might well be over 8% by now.
I knew that the British government had invested heavily in DNA matching technology, but I had no idea that they had gone so far! They say with pride that £300 million was spent on the scheme.
The situation seems to have changed in 2001. Prior to that year, the system would not have been out of place here in the US. The police could only take samples during an active investigation, and both the genetic material and records had to be destroyed if charges were not filed, or if there was an acquittal. Now it is legal for the police to take a sample from anyone arrested for a “recordable offense and detained in a police station”.
People who have worked in law enforcement will recognize that this is similar to the US policy concerning fingerprints. If someone is arrested, they are routinely printed in order to establish identity. After all, people wanted for various offenses will routinely lie about who they are. Comparing the fingerprints of someone detained against the database will quickly determine if there are outstanding warrants against them.
But that isn’t what the DNA database is used for. Instead it is used exclusively as a crime scene tool, usually by eliminating a suspect by determining if that is, indeed, their DNA littering the area. The authorities in England seem to have the idea that the percentage of crimes solved will be similar to the percentage of population who have had their DNA collected.
This would be reason enough to compile such a database and increase the number of people included, but this entry at the unofficial UK Libertarian Blog points out that the number of crimes solved using DNA flatlined years ago. As they so succinctly state, “Increasing the size of the database is not increasing its usefulness in tackling crime.” In fact, such methods are only useful in about one out of every three hundred crimes.
This makes perfect sense when one considers that the vast majority of crimes, even violent crime, never leave any DNA evidence to be gathered. Think muggings, burglaries, armed robberies, and simple assault. The perp might well have shed a few hairs as he ran away after holding up the convenience store clerk, but it would be extremely costly and time consuming to find and then extract DNA from every hair to be found on the floor of a shop that is open to the public.
The situations where such a database would prove useful would be if there was a rape, or a murder where a fight took place as the victim struggled for their lives. Crimes such as that are rather rare, and they tend to be committed by a very small percentage of extremely dangerous criminals. Building a DNA database of people convicted of crimes such as these would certainly justify the expense and trouble. But it makes very little sense to obtain a sample from everyone arrested, no matter how insignificant the crime which leads to that arrest.
Like I said before, the government brags that they have spent over £300 million on their DNA scheme, and this is at a time when the UK military is facing equipment shortages and reliability problems while engaged in a shooting war. Couldn’t the cash be used to better effect?
And that is the real problem. To be frank, I’m not really sure why the UK government is spending the money considering that it isn’t very cost effective at solving crimes. The only thing I can think of is that they view their own people with a great deal of suspicion, and expect that just about everyone will explode into violence at some time in their lives.
(Hat tip to Milo.)