Obama endorses DNA databank for crime

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." 

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