Tempest in a DNA-Cup

Monday, March 14th, 2011

Undoubtedly one of the major advances of the past decades in the field of criminal investigation has been the use of DNA samples for exact, individual perpetrator identification. The sheer scale of the difference such a tool has made from the way serious crimes were solved previously can be seen – shockingly – in the many US capital cases where these techniques have managed to prove the innocence of those already convicted and on death row. These in turn were an important factor in recently convincing Illinois governor Pat Quinn to do away with the death penalty in his state entirely.

Fine, then: DNA is good stuff. Except that it can’t work every time unless everyone has his/her DNA on file – you never can quite be sure who will turn out to be the next crazed murderer! That at least was the idea of Rotterdam police chief Frank Pauw (= “Frank the Peacock”), as reported in today’s Telegraaf. For freedom is not free, and similarly according to Frank “If you want the make the world safer, you’ve got to pay a price.”

Wait a second.

Whatever happened to privacy? To “innocent until proven guilty,” as opposed to seeing in every citizen a potential cutthroat? The crazy thing is, you would think the Dutch would be particularly sensitive on this point, as they had an excellent system of citizen records – complete with ID cards that were practically unforgeable – going into German occupation starting in 1940. The Nazis were quite pleased and grateful for the considerable assistance such a system afforded the various sociological projects they then undertook in the country, like keeping tabs on the entire population bar that segment they explicitly set out to segregate, ship away, and murder.

Have no fear, though, for Frank the Peacock’s proposal has been shot down within the same business day, as we can see in this dispatch from Joost Schellevis* at the Dutch site tweakers.net (h/t to Erwin Boogert). The official word comes from no less than the official spokesman for the Dutch Ministry of Security and Justice, Wim van der Weegen: “We reject the proposal. . . . There are only few people who commit this sort of serious crimes, and the current system of [DNA] registration takes care of those.” The current system is namely that only suspects of crimes for which the punishment can be four or more years of prison have to submit DNA samples for permanent storage.

The alacrity with which Pauw’s suggestion was rejected is nice to see. On the other hand, it would also have been interesting had there been no governmental reaction, just as a sort of experiment to gauge Dutch society’s readiness to spring to the defense of its civil freedoms. In the long run, many (including this author) might consider such general DNA registration to be inevitable, probably to be instituted during the hysteria following some terrorist outrage. For now, though, you’d like to think Pauw’s proposal, left officially unchecked, would have attracted the attention of organizations like Bits of Freedom (though, admittedly, they concentrate on digital civil rights) who might even have crowned it with one of their famed annual Big Brother awards.

* No, not “Joost the Shellfish”; if you must know, it’s more like “Joost the Haddock”!

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