Tuesday, March 16, 2010

This Data Will Self-Destruct - NOT

Michael Seringhaus wants your DNA.
OK, that's not true.  What he actually wants, and he explains it in an op-ed in today's NYTimes, is for the government to collect a sample of your DNA (and mine, and everyone else's), run a profile, store the profile, and destroy the sample.  The complete national database would, he asserts

  • invade nobody's privacy because it would provide no meaningful personal information;
  • be completely secure because we'd all have a stake in that security;
  • be a wonderful tool for identifying criminals and exonerating the innocent;
  • deter first-time criminals since they'd surely get caught.

WOW.  What a great idea.
Scott Greenfield's wary, but worries that if Seringhaus is right that DNA profiles are based exclusively on junk DNA that reveals nothing, there's no clear and specific reason to oppose the plan.

My problem is that if Seringhaus is correct, then my arguments against the creation of a nationwide DNA database fail.  Sure, there's the genetic Big Brother position, but we've already lost that battle with social security numbers and the wealth of other information we regularly provide the government about ourselves in order to keep the monster well fed and happy.
There is no right to commit a crime and demand that the government not be able to identify the criminal.  We leave our DNA all over the place, so it's not like we're giving up some deep, dark, personal secret.  If the information in the government's hands does no more than provide a basis for personal identification, without giving up the private aspects of our being contained in our DNA, then I'm having some difficulty in finding a decent argument against this.  It's not that I'm for it, but in arguing against it, am I shooting blanks?
This doesn't alter the flaws that otherwise exist with DNA identification, from partial or decayed DNA to the grossly exaggerated claims of one in a trillion chance of it being wrong when the real number is more like one in twelve.  But these, as courts love to say, go to weight and sufficiency.

It's one thing to leave your DNA around.  That's a function of being alive.  It's something else, quite a different something, for the government to collect and analyze and store your DNA.
I've heard the same statement made: That they sequence only junk DNA that tells nothing about the person, and that they won't retain the samples but only the junk profile.  I've also heard that Social Security Numbers were to be used only for purposes of Social Security.  That's what legislation originally said.  Look around.
So let me offer a couple of thoughts, in no particular order.
  • Data collected by the government will eventually be used/misused for purposes other than those for which is was collected.
  • Any certainty that there's nothing personally meaningful in what we now believe to be junk DNA (if there actually is such certainty in the scientific community) is based entirely on current understanding. Who knows what will be discovered next week, or next year, or next decade? Don't believe that what scientists can figure out today is also what they'll be able to figure out in the future.
  • DNA testing isn't as simple and straightforward as we'd like to believe. Nor is DNA matching as precise as popular culture and belief tells us; the database will be less useful (not useless, but less useful) than Seringhaus would have us believe;
  • As anyone who's spent much time around criminals can tell you, it's virtual fantasy to believe that the existence of the database would serve as a deterrent to crime;
  • Even more fantastic is the belief that the DNA samples themselves will be - always and ever - destroyed as soon as the profiles are compiled; some, at least, will be kept - at first through either malfeasance or negligence or incompetence; eventually, the law will be changed so that all will be kept;
  • Sooner or later, those samples that are kept, or some of them, will be lost/stolen/or sold to the highest bidder.
It may very well be that what Seringhaus advocates will come to pass.  It may be that the train can't be stopped.  But it's a runaway train and we need to provide what braking power we can.
Ronald Reagan told us to "trust but verify."  He also told us that the most dangerous words in the language were "I'm from the government and I'm here to help." 
In fact, the far more dangerous words are: "I'm from the government so you know you can trust me."

1 comment:

  1. So you've got the routine big brother stuff covered too. But any hard issues? I would like to have one hard issue to hang my hat on, and so far no one has come up with anything.