The Independent reports that Rwanda is the first country to take the disturbing step of requiring all of its citizens to submit samples of their DNA for a national database. Naturally, the reasoning being given is that it will help “crack down on crime.”

Rwanda’s Minister for Justice and Attorney General, Johnson Busingye, announced the plans this week.

We think we have the technical basis now to launch into the development of a DNA database. That said, it is first of all a legal process. We will examine global best practice on the issue, propose appropriate law and implement accordingly. I want to assure you that the ultimate goal is to have all the necessary equipment and technical know-how to provide accurate information about who is responsible for crime. [emphasis added]

He wants to assure Rwandans that the ultimate goal is to use it for crime. What else is in that statement, however?

  • He cannot say that the ultimate goal is truly for crime, although he wants to.
  • There are other goals for its use.

Another interesting point is that he says the government will “examine global best practice” for ideas on how to implement the program. What are the current “global best practices?” Let’s take a look.

United Kingdom

The UK has one, called the National DNA Database, or NDNAD. It initially only took DNA from people charged with a crime but deleted samples of those who were arrested but not charged. That changed later; now it doesn’t matter if you’re not charged; they still have your sample. As they criminalized more things, such as seat belt violations, it opened the gates for far more samples. In fact, the UK’s database is the second largest in the world at over 4 million entries; in 2006 it was in the top spot but has since been eclipsed by another country.

The UK’s big push right now is to get samples from children. Scotland Yard’s Director of Forensic Sciences says “we have to find who are possibly going to be the biggest threat to society.” Any child, according to him, who “exhibits behaviors that may indicate a potential for committing crime in the future” should be in the database.

Australia

Australia’s national DNA database has 1.2 million people in it as of November 2018, and is available 24-7 to all Australian police agencies. The database “contains DNA profiles from samples collected by Australian police from crime scenes, convicted offenders, suspects, volunteers, items belonging to missing persons, and unknown deceased persons.” [emphasis added]

Europe

Several countries in Europe now have databases, including Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, and more.

United States

The FBI maintains an extensive federal DNA database. Interestingly enough, while the database is made up of convicts, those charged with a crime, etc., if the US gets a database like Rwanda, in which all citizens are sampled, it’ll be largely because of consumer DNA testing such as what you can do with Ancestry.com or 23andMe. Even Slate is sounding the alarm.

Imagine instead that the federal government established a database for which people could volunteer genetic profiles—but that the decision about whether to volunteer your DNA belonged not to you, but to your third cousin. Would you be OK with that?

Before you think that’s crazy, it’s already been done several times. Sites like Ancestry are treasure troves for DNA evidence because not only do people submit their data voluntarily to the site for the purposes of “finding their heritage,” but they often make the results public to other users of the site. When you upload a DNA sample, you’re shown the people who are related to you, however tangentially, and you’re off to the races, discovering your long lost family. This can be used in all sorts of ways; not only could you identify the perpetrator of a violent crime, but governments and other entities can misuse the data — because that’s what happens to any personal data. It gets misused.

Slate explains how detailed it’s getting:

Whether you like it or not, the United States has effectively already adopted this second system [of DNA databases]. Since April 2018, law enforcement investigations stemming from DNA searches in consumer genetics databases have led to nearly three dozen arrests. In every case, those ultimately arrested did not actually upload their own genetic profiles to any database. Rather, they were identified through partial matches between crime scene DNA samples and the genetic profiles of often-distant relatives shared on consumer platforms like GEDmatch or FamilyTreeDNA. By one estimate, more than 60 percent of Americans of European descent are already identifiable through the DNA of a third cousin or closer on one of these platforms, and nearly all such Americans may be findable soon. Meanwhile, Parabon Nanolabs, the leading private company selling genetic genealogy services to law enforcement, claims that it can identify criminal suspects out to ninth-degree relatives (e.g., fourth cousins)—widening the genetic web of indirect database inclusion still further.

Why would someone be against being able to identify rapists and murderers? That’s the defense presented for this widespread use of genetic information. The problem is that the people in voluntary genetic databases are not volunteering to be part of a national government database. They didn’t commit a crime themselves, and by default have the right to privacy. Well, theoretically, anyway. Certainly in practice there is no such thing.

There is something to be said for understanding your heritage, knowing the stories of your family. Genealogy is an incredibly rewarding and fascinating pastime; I am heavily involved in it myself. Before you spit in a tube and send it off to be cataloged and picked over by far more people than you initially gave consent to, however, you may want to think twice.

Then again, somewhere along the line one of your distant cousins probably already did it.

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