Taking the Laura Norder bus, last stop Dystopia

A worrying development in the United States – the Katie Sepich Enhanced DNA Collection Act of 2010 was approved by the House of Representatives. It gives money to states if they abide by certain rules, which would require anyone arrested (note – not convicted, just arrested) for certain serious crimes[1] to give a DNA sample that will go into the FBI’s Convicted Offender DNA Index System database for possible matches.

This is another facet of the “policy ratchet” as it applies to civil liberties that was raised by Professor John Quiggin at his blog, though in a different area.

In 2000, the US passed a law to extract DNA samples from everyone in jail or on probation for serious crimes. The idea was that there was lots of ‘orphan’ DNA evidence, and since these people had shown a predilection for crime already, they might have been guilty of the unsolved cases, so why not see if they matched. It was challenged, but upheld by the courts.

Next, in 2006 a new law allowed federal agencies to collect DNA from anyone they arrest (about 130,000 people a year). Now the policy ratchet has taken another turn, and state and local authorities can get into the action, helped by the funding the Act provides.

Some argue that it will help convict criminals, and I have no doubt it will. I also give little credence to the paranoid who fear the potential abuse such a database could allow. My objections are more abstract:

  • This law is indicative of the trend away from the presumption of innocence. Convictions are hard to get because our system is biased towards preventing the innocent being punished, even at the expense of letting the guilty go free. So chipping away at the protections, like America’s rapidly disappearing freedom from unreasonable search, is moving towards a world where innocence rather than guilt must be proved.
  • This law points to the next, most disturbing, likely turn of the ratchet. People who are arrested are not guilty of anything until convicted – that is, suspicion on the part of the police is all that distinguishes them from other citizens. The next step is to simply have the DNA of everyone in the country available to law enforcement. Is that really where the US wants to go?
  • The history of the evolving uses of databases like this suggests that whatever restrictions on its use are in place originally, there is a great capacity for later governments to change it, in line with the policy ratchet effect. I’m not worried, like some tinfoil-hatters, about DNA being planted at crime scenes. I’m worried about the collation by governments of information on their citizens, and what they’ll do with it in the future.

1.- Burglary or attempted burglary; aggravated assault; murder or attempted murder; manslaughter; sex acts that can be punished by imprisonment for more than one year; and sex offences against minors.

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2 Responses to Taking the Laura Norder bus, last stop Dystopia

  1. Not sure if you can respond to comments made to posts this old, but for me the truly terrifying thing about this sort of “forensic data mining” is that it will lead to more of this:


    Even published scientists are still getting this kind of thing wrong; and the problem is exacerbated by the modern explosion in the availability of all kinds of data. Police, juries, judges and lawyers need to demonstrate they’re not reasoning this way before they can be trusted them with information arbitrarily collected by the state.

  2. Jarrah says:

    The explosion in data collection – by governments and companies – and the prodigious growth in the sharing of the information, are some of the more worrying aspects of the information age. And as with lots of worrying developments, it’s happening with barely a ripple of public acknowledgment.

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