Implications of collecting DNA samples

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Implications of collecting DNA samples

Postby Rainsborough » Wed Jun 22, 2011 11:55 pm UTC

I was watching Prime Minister's Question time, here in the UK and there appears to be a push from certain elements in both main parties to ensure that the DNA of anyone who is arrested but not convicted of rape is stored on the national database.

For anyone who doesn't know the context; the Police in England and Wales started to routinely take DNA samples from those people who they arrested, these DNA profiles were then stored on a National DNA database indefinitely. This raised a lot of criticism from civil liberties group and a court case on the legality of the system eventually made its way to the European Court of Human Rights, who found that it contravened several articles of the European Convention on Human Rights. Since then the UK government has be... assessing the way that the ruling should be best incorporated into English Law. Their proposals basically are a compromise that samples will be kept for 3 years before being disposed of. However some in the media and some pressure groups have called for the profiles of those arrested for rape be kept on the database longer.

So what I'm asking is: whether this is right? Or helpful. Given the fact (already copiously discussed) that stranger rape makes up a relatively small proportion of the total is the trade off between individual rights and the security of society worth it? If it is why only those arrested for rape, why not murder or Assault occasioning actual bodily harm. To me the potential benefits seem to be vastly outweighed by the harm caused, the first principle of a fair criminal justice system is that we are all innocent until proven guilty and it seems to me that anything that subverts that concept can't be right.

Apologies for the polemics, didn't mean to put my black cap on.

Thread split since this isn't really about rape culture.

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Implications of collecting DNA samples

Postby Cathy » Thu Jun 23, 2011 12:00 am UTC

Rainsborough wrote: [On keeping DNA samples of those arrested for but not necessarily convicted of rape]
So what I'm asking is: whether this is right? Or helpful. Given the fact (already copiously discussed) that stranger rape makes up a relatively small proportion of the total is the trade off between individual rights and the security of society worth it?

I think that people who sexually abuse partners (their boyfriend/girlfriend) would be somewhat likely to be affected by this -- say a previous partner reports them but they are not convicted, and they move on to a new partner. The new partner reports them as well, and the police have a DNA sample of the previously accused person. This could help a lot for catching repeat abusers who may not have years of connection or no connection to the abused.

Does this make any sense?
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Re: Rape Culture (Obvious Trigger Warning)

Postby Aaeriele » Thu Jun 23, 2011 12:12 am UTC

I've never really seen what the big deal was about having DNA (or fingerprints, or whatever) on file somewhere was. On its own, it doesn't really invade privacy; the only potential use is for comparing with some other evidence collected elsewhere.
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Re: Rape Culture (Obvious Trigger Warning)

Postby Soralin » Thu Jun 23, 2011 2:15 am UTC

Cathy wrote:
Rainsborough wrote: [On keeping DNA samples of those arrested for but not necessarily convicted of rape]
So what I'm asking is: whether this is right? Or helpful. Given the fact (already copiously discussed) that stranger rape makes up a relatively small proportion of the total is the trade off between individual rights and the security of society worth it?

I think that people who sexually abuse partners (their boyfriend/girlfriend) would be somewhat likely to be affected by this -- say a previous partner reports them but they are not convicted, and they move on to a new partner. The new partner reports them as well, and the police have a DNA sample of the previously accused person. This could help a lot for catching repeat abusers who may not have years of connection or no connection to the abused.

Does this make any sense?

How would a DNA sample help with that? They could just look and see that there's a previous arrest or report against that person.
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Re: Rape Culture (Obvious Trigger Warning)

Postby lutzj » Thu Jun 23, 2011 2:29 am UTC

Soralin wrote:
Cathy wrote:
Rainsborough wrote: [On keeping DNA samples of those arrested for but not necessarily convicted of rape]
So what I'm asking is: whether this is right? Or helpful. Given the fact (already copiously discussed) that stranger rape makes up a relatively small proportion of the total is the trade off between individual rights and the security of society worth it?

I think that people who sexually abuse partners (their boyfriend/girlfriend) would be somewhat likely to be affected by this -- say a previous partner reports them but they are not convicted, and they move on to a new partner. The new partner reports them as well, and the police have a DNA sample of the previously accused person. This could help a lot for catching repeat abusers who may not have years of connection or no connection to the abused.

Does this make any sense?

How would a DNA sample help with that? They could just look and see that there's a previous arrest or report against that person.


If you keep DNA samples on record of people who have been arrested for domestic abuse etc. (in addition to the myriad other sexual offenses which get you put in a database) you would then have something to compare to the results from rape kits and probably make many more arrests and convictions. As long as the police have reasonable cause to take a given person's info (privacy and all that) it seems like a good idea.
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Re: Rape Culture (Obvious Trigger Warning)

Postby Cheezwhiz Jenkins » Thu Jun 23, 2011 2:33 am UTC

Aaeriele wrote:I've never really seen what the big deal was about having DNA (or fingerprints, or whatever) on file somewhere was. On its own, it doesn't really invade privacy; the only potential use is for comparing with some other evidence collected elsewhere.


I think the idea, aside from the fact that many people feel that those things do invade privacy, and the concept that privacy is a basic human need and right for which no justification is needed, is that the database with that information could be compromised or abused in any number of ways. Your imagination can fill in the rest if a criminal/disgruntled employee/hacker/thief/despostic government gets their hands on such data.
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Re: Rape Culture (Obvious Trigger Warning)

Postby Soralin » Thu Jun 23, 2011 2:49 am UTC

lutzj wrote:
Soralin wrote:How would a DNA sample help with that? They could just look and see that there's a previous arrest or report against that person.


If you keep DNA samples on record of people who have been arrested for domestic abuse etc. (in addition to the myriad other sexual offenses which get you put in a database) you would then have something to compare to the results from rape kits and probably make many more arrests and convictions. As long as the police have reasonable cause to take a given person's info (privacy and all that) it seems like a good idea.

True, but that's only really useful if you don't have a suspect already. If it's someone the person was in a relationship with for example, then they can just point them out, bring them in, and take a DNA sample then, to compare against the kit. Although it would still be useful in cases where you don't know the person who did it, or where they gave you a fake name earlier or something.
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Re: Rape Culture (Obvious Trigger Warning)

Postby Cathy » Thu Jun 23, 2011 3:11 am UTC

Soralin wrote:
lutzj wrote:
Soralin wrote:How would a DNA sample help with that? They could just look and see that there's a previous arrest or report against that person.


If you keep DNA samples on record of people who have been arrested for domestic abuse etc. (in addition to the myriad other sexual offenses which get you put in a database) you would then have something to compare to the results from rape kits and probably make many more arrests and convictions. As long as the police have reasonable cause to take a given person's info (privacy and all that) it seems like a good idea.

True, but that's only really useful if you don't have a suspect already. If it's someone the person was in a relationship with for example, then they can just point them out, bring them in, and take a DNA sample then, to compare against the kit. Although it would still be useful in cases where you don't know the person who did it, or where they gave you a fake name earlier or something.

Yes, but if they are unable to bring this person in/find this person then it makes it easier. Also I assume (IANAL) that cases with clear DNA evidence are easier to get convictions on.
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Re: Rape Culture (Obvious Trigger Warning)

Postby Plasma Man » Thu Jun 23, 2011 10:39 am UTC

I'm no lawyer either, but as far as I'm aware, the problem with the DNA database is that it was being searched routinely whenever DNA related to a crime was collected. That's not acceptable, because if you're arrested but not convicted of anything, you're (legally) innocent, so being automatically considered as a suspect above other (legally) innocent people who don't have their DNA on the database is unjustifiable. And that's before you open the can of worms about minorities being over-represented on the database.
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Re: Rape Culture (Obvious Trigger Warning)

Postby Ulc » Thu Jun 23, 2011 10:55 am UTC

Not to mention that keeping a DNA sample of someone that has not been proven in court to have done something criminal is very much infringing on their privacy. It's like installing a GPS in anyone the police have ever arrested for a crime and later released with no trial as innocent, and saying "don't worry, we will only use it to compare your position with *every single crime committed* to see if you were near it".

And the "you have nothing to fear if you're not a criminal" excuse so often cooked up really doesn't fly - the fact that I'm not a criminal doesn't mean that I lose the right to my privacy with regards to the police. And yes, my DNA, as well as my fingerprints are private data, unless there is a reasonable suspicion in a specific case that I might have violated someone else's rights, no one has any right to it without my permission.

When that data is stored on a database however? Then I am considered a suspect forever, despite not having been proven guilty in anything - violating the "innocent until proven guilty" principle.
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Re: Rape Culture (Obvious Trigger Warning)

Postby gmalivuk » Thu Jun 23, 2011 12:00 pm UTC

Plasma Man wrote:the problem with the DNA database is that it was being searched routinely whenever DNA related to a crime was collected. That's not acceptable
It also may lead to lots of *false* convictions, given the overconfidence jurors often have in DNA evidence based on cop dramas and such. Though perhaps this could be lessened by making sure people have a better intuitive grasp of the mathematics of it.

For example, if some DNA marker found at a new crime occurs at a one in a million rate, lots of people will think that's pretty strong evidence that the defendant (who has the same marker) is guilty. But if there are a million people already in the DNA database, then there's actually about a 50/50 chance that a one-in-a-million DNA marker will show up somewhere in there. And so unless there's a whole lot of *additional* evidence for this particular defendant, all the DNA has done is reduce it to a coin toss. And it's fairly reasonable to doubt that a coin toss will definitely come up heads next time I do it.
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Re: Rape Culture (Obvious Trigger Warning)

Postby Izawwlgood » Thu Jun 23, 2011 2:13 pm UTC

Do you mean there's a 50/50 chance that in a database of one million people, given a one in a million chance of false-positive, that any two of them will be a match?

Because it seems like having the defendant and the culprit as that one in a million is a more impressive coincidence than any two given random people.
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Re: Rape Culture (Obvious Trigger Warning)

Postby lutzj » Thu Jun 23, 2011 2:17 pm UTC

Just saw this headline and thought of this thread. There's certainly an attitude towards victim-blaming with violent crimes, and it probably has a lot to do with the fact that most people have never been raped or mugged or had their identity stolen etc. and believe that is because they "stay safe," and that if others would just "stay safe" they would not have been victims of such crimes.
Izawwlgood wrote:Do you mean there's a 50/50 chance that in a database of one million people, given a one in a million chance of false-positive, that any two of them will be a match?

Because it seems like having the defendant and the culprit as that one in a million is a more impressive coincidence than any two given random people.


He's probably more worried about the use of a DNA database to check for suspects. If you take a blood sample and run it through a sufficiently-large database, you're going to get a reasonably close match, and there is a good chance that you have a mistake and that person will likely be arrested for no good reason except that they are in a database.
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Re: Rape Culture (Obvious Trigger Warning)

Postby gmalivuk » Thu Jun 23, 2011 3:10 pm UTC

lutzj wrote:
Izawwlgood wrote:Do you mean there's a 50/50 chance that in a database of one million people, given a one in a million chance of false-positive, that any two of them will be a match?

Because it seems like having the defendant and the culprit as that one in a million is a more impressive coincidence than any two given random people.
He's probably more worried about the use of a DNA database to check for suspects. If you take a blood sample and run it through a sufficiently-large database, you're going to get a reasonably close match, and there is a good chance that you have a mistake and that person will likely be arrested for no good reason except that they are in a database.
Right. Thus the "unless there's a whole lot of *additional* evidence" part. One would hope that a mere database match alone wouldn't be enough to officially charge a suspect in the first place, but if they do, and it goes to trial, I unfortunately lack confidence in the ability of a jury of average citizens to understand that DNA evidence alone is not actually very good. (At least, until "DNA evidence" becomes the full unique genome sequence instead of just specific quicker-to-test-for markers.)
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Re: Rape Culture (Obvious Trigger Warning)

Postby Izawwlgood » Thu Jun 23, 2011 3:12 pm UTC

Ah, I misunderstood.
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Re: Rape Culture (Obvious Trigger Warning)

Postby gmalivuk » Thu Jun 23, 2011 3:46 pm UTC

That said, I think a database hit *could* be probable cause enough to bring a person in for questioning. Given that in a city of a million people, a random person has a 1 in a million chance of being guilty, the 50% or so chance that the person with the DNA match is guilty is a pretty huge increase. Probably worth checking if he or she might have motive and/or opportunity.
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Re: Rape Culture (Obvious Trigger Warning)

Postby Azrael » Thu Jun 23, 2011 4:14 pm UTC

Which I believe is how finger print data is currently used, isn't it?
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Re: Rape Culture (Obvious Trigger Warning)

Postby gmalivuk » Thu Jun 23, 2011 4:28 pm UTC

Yeah, though to be fair it's far less likely that a complete print gives a false positive than the types of DNA tests used most often.
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Re: Rape Culture (Obvious Trigger Warning)

Postby Rainsborough » Thu Jun 23, 2011 6:22 pm UTC

gmalivuk wrote:Right. Thus the "unless there's a whole lot of *additional* evidence" part. One would hope that a mere database match alone wouldn't be enough to officially charge a suspect in the first place, but if they do, and it goes to trial, I unfortunately lack confidence in the ability of a jury of average citizens to understand that DNA evidence alone is not actually very good. (At least, until "DNA evidence" becomes the full unique genome sequence instead of just specific quicker-to-test-for markers.)


In English Courts at least, a Judge will make it very clear that DNA (or similar forensic evidence for that matter) is nowhere near enough to secure a conviction, or even to prove that a particular person was in a particular place. There is a rather amusing argument that jurors should be taught the use of Bayesian inference to draw conclusions in court.

gmalivuk wrote:Yeah, though to be fair it's far less likely that a complete print gives a false positive than the types of DNA tests used most often.


You'd think but I read an article a while back on the incredible unreliability of identification of latent fingerprints, http://users.ecs.soton.ac.uk/id/FSI%20contextual%20influences.pdf it's actually pretty disturbing given the weight we all instinctively give to this type of data.
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Re: Rape Culture (Obvious Trigger Warning)

Postby Aaeriele » Thu Jun 23, 2011 6:44 pm UTC

Plasma Man wrote:I'm no lawyer either, but as far as I'm aware, the problem with the DNA database is that it was being searched routinely whenever DNA related to a crime was collected. That's not acceptable, because if you're arrested but not convicted of anything, you're (legally) innocent, so being automatically considered as a suspect above other (legally) innocent people who don't have their DNA on the database is unjustifiable. And that's before you open the can of worms about minorities being over-represented on the database.


Well, there's an easy solution to that - put everyone's DNA in the database, say at the same time as a birth certificate is filed. *shrug*

Cheezwhiz Jenkins wrote:I think the idea, aside from the fact that many people feel that those things do invade privacy, and the concept that privacy is a basic human need and right for which no justification is needed, is that the database with that information could be compromised or abused in any number of ways. Your imagination can fill in the rest if a criminal/disgruntled employee/hacker/thief/despostic government gets their hands on such data.


My imagination is actually having a hard time seeing any real problematic use such things could be put to that couldn't be accomplished by, say, dumpster-diving a coffee cup you had just used - and even then, what nefarious use it would be put to.
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Re: Rape Culture (Obvious Trigger Warning)

Postby Cheezwhiz Jenkins » Thu Jun 23, 2011 7:00 pm UTC

The difference is having a systemic database of your personally identifying biological characteristics in a database as opposed to having to hunt down discarded coffee cups one at a time a la every episode of Law and Order ever. While I'm certainly not dismissing the notion that it could help stop more crimes, I think there are serious issues (some of which have already been mentioned). One of my biggest concerns is, again, privacy. Even if you don't accept that it's inherently invasive of privacy, consider a few scenarios off the top of my head: what would happen if someone hacked/broke in and stole your DNA samples, fingerprints, etc - the ultimate identity theft. You can now be framed or blackmailed. Or say your crazy ex who just so happens to work in close proximity to the facility working with these decides that you are the father of her child, and she will "prove" it with your DNA. Or what if the government turns corrupt? Winston Smith's DNA and prints are now all over a book of thoughtcrime.
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Re: Rape Culture (Obvious Trigger Warning)

Postby Aaeriele » Thu Jun 23, 2011 7:11 pm UTC

Cheezwhiz Jenkins wrote:One of my biggest concerns is, again, privacy. Even if you don't accept that it's inherently invasive of privacy, consider a few scenarios off the top of my head: what would happen if someone hacked/broke in and stole your DNA samples, fingerprints, etc - the ultimate identity theft. You can now be framed or blackmailed. Or say your crazy ex who just so happens to work in close proximity to the facility working with these decides that you are the father of her child, and she will "prove" it with your DNA. Or what if the government turns corrupt? Winston Smith's DNA and prints are now all over a book of thoughtcrime.


And my point is that if someone wants to obtain your DNA, it is still far easier for them to grab your discarded coffee cup than it is for them to hack into a database.

People are paranoid about "DNA databases" but really there are far more easy ways of acquiring the same information. Sort of like how people were/are paranoid about putting their credit card number in an online form, yet it's far easier for someone who works in a phone-order call center to get that number than it is for someone to hack into a database to get it.
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Re: Rape Culture (Obvious Trigger Warning)

Postby Rainsborough » Thu Jun 23, 2011 7:17 pm UTC

Cheezwhiz Jenkins wrote:I think the idea, aside from the fact that many people feel that those things do invade privacy, and the concept that privacy is a basic human need and right for which no justification is needed, is that the database with that information could be compromised or abused in any number of ways. Your imagination can fill in the rest if a criminal/disgruntled employee/hacker/thief/despostic government gets their hands on such data.


My imagination is actually having a hard time seeing any real problematic use such things could be put to that couldn't be accomplished by, say, dumpster-diving a coffee cup you had just used - and even then, what nefarious use it would be put to.[/quote]

Oh come on surely you can imagine an unpalatable use for the data. Say that a terrorist attack occurs in a western nation by radical Islamists, of an unprecedented scale (say a dirty bomb) 100,000s dead. The government does the only thing it knows who to in such a situation and goes into totality mode, every Muslim or person of Islamic heritage is to be interned (you can't tell me that such a thing won't happen in a western democracy.) In the UK that would be at least 1 million people and at least 1.8 million in the States. I hoping that we can all agree that such an action would be immoral on every level, the presence of every citizen on a national DNA database would make the process of rounding up and incarcerating any particular group much easier.

I don't consider the above to be a particularly far-fetched scenario, but if you allow to be a complete paranoiac, imagine if one of the insane people campaigning for the Republican nomination achieves power and turns out to be even crazier, compulsory reparative (chrome says it's not a word) therapy for Queers. Hell Michelle Bachmann probably would love that idea.

And what about the opportunity for some manner of clandestine eugenics program. Before someone points it out, I do realise that is not full genomic sequencing, I think however that once you have a point of comparison there would be potential to identify genetic traits via DNA fingerprinting.

There are loads of potentially nefarious uses this information could be put to. Now if you'll excuse me I need to find my tinfoil hat.
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Re: Rape Culture (Obvious Trigger Warning)

Postby gmalivuk » Thu Jun 23, 2011 7:19 pm UTC

And, just like the credit card situation, an additional issue with the database is that it's got millions of people's info all at once. So unless it's millions of times harder to gain access to that information than it is to obtain one person's at a time, there's still a greater danger of having it in a database.
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Re: Rape Culture (Obvious Trigger Warning)

Postby Aaeriele » Thu Jun 23, 2011 7:22 pm UTC

gmalivuk wrote:And, just like the credit card situation, an additional issue with the database is that it's got millions of people's info all at once. So unless it's millions of times harder to gain access to that information than it is to obtain one person's at a time, there's still a greater danger of having it in a database.


Unlike credit cards, there are a lot fewer nefarious uses that having 10x as many DNA samples will get you.


And I don't really accept the dystopian/totalitarian government angle; if such a government wanted it could just force citizens to report for DNA profiling, so it's not as if not having the database already existing would change much.
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Re: Rape Culture (Obvious Trigger Warning)

Postby Azrael » Thu Jun 23, 2011 7:39 pm UTC

Aaeriele wrote:And I don't really accept the dystopian/totalitarian government angle; if such a government wanted it could just force citizens to report for DNA profiling, so it's not as if not having the database already existing would change much.

In the ultimate of Godwins, DNA wasn't even "discovered" for either Hitler or Stalin. Nor for the "one-drop" policies of racial segregation, nor ...
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Re: Rape Culture (Obvious Trigger Warning)

Postby Rainsborough » Thu Jun 23, 2011 8:21 pm UTC

Azrael wrote:
Aaeriele wrote:And I don't really accept the dystopian/totalitarian government angle; if such a government wanted it could just force citizens to report for DNA profiling, so it's not as if not having the database already existing would change much.

In the ultimate of Godwins, DNA wasn't even "discovered" for either Hitler or Stalin. Nor for the "one-drop" policies of racial segregation, nor ...


They didn't have access to nuclear weapons either, but I still wouldn't advocate leaving them around where dictators can find them. The point is not that without a DNA database large scale abuses of power can't happen, merely that it makes them a lot easier to perpetrate.
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Re: Rape Culture (Obvious Trigger Warning)

Postby Cathy » Fri Jun 24, 2011 12:23 am UTC

Frankly, I doubt there's a lot of information that a DNA/fingerprint database can give you that (in the US) a social security database doesn't give you. I'm pretty much with Aariele on this one -- they took my fingerprint when I got a driver's license, they have all my information in multiple state and national databases, I'm not seeing the slippery slope that DNA activates.

Anyway, with the whole muslim/other culture groups, I can imagine that they would just as willingly do that with names and immigration and relatives. If we ever became idiotic enough to elect Sharon Angle that is.
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Re: Rape Culture (Obvious Trigger Warning)

Postby Whimsical Eloquence » Fri Jun 24, 2011 1:53 am UTC

Aaeriele wrote:I've never really seen what the big deal was about having DNA (or fingerprints, or whatever) on file somewhere was. On its own, it doesn't really invade privacy; the only potential use is for comparing with some other evidence collected elsewhere.


I'd certainly take this view broadly. I really don't mind if there's a Government Mandated Database of all Citizens' DNA and other Bio-Metric Information - it's just like them knowing your name, age, birthrate and other essential facts about you.

What I do have a problem with is the State treating group x one way (they have a right to privacy) and group b another way (they don't) because group b has not been convicted but merely suspected of a crime because it violates the Principle of Innocent until Proven Guilty. Regardless of whether the treatment itself is that harmful. To be honest I don't think this is terribly relevant to a discussion of Rape Culture - more one of Civil Liberties/Interpreting Right to Privacy.

Cheezwhiz Jenkins wrote:Or say your crazy ex who just so happens to work in close proximity to the facility working with these decides that you are the father of her child, and she will "prove" it with your DNA.


I think it's far, far, far, far ore likely that any person who's associated with someone else for a given amount of time (such as a crazed, former romantic partner) would have easier access to one's DNA in a mundane fashion (discarded coffee/tea cups abound in my personal instance) than they would to a Government Database.

Or what if the government turns corrupt? Winston Smith's DNA and prints are now all over a book of thoughtcrime.


I really hate this as a line of argument against the general idea of a State having x power. My this logic we should never have armies/executive power/what have you. In any case a really totalitarian Government will simply ignore the current rules and expand their power anyway. We sort of came up with a solution by granting the State powers on the basis of what we have now not "What if"s and then putting in some safeguards just to be sure.
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Implications of collecting DNA samples

Postby Azrael » Fri Jun 24, 2011 12:17 pm UTC

Rainsborough wrote:The point is not that without a DNA database large scale abuses of power can't happen, merely that it makes them a lot easier to perpetrate.

I doubt very strongly a DNA base would make a genocide (or other ethnicity-based action) any easier. The hard part is not identification. Building the political will/acceptance or the police/military strength to pull it off is hard. The actual infrastructure and logistics are difficult, at least for the more massive actions. And, at the very opposite end, avoiding the consequences can be particularly tricky.

But history has dozens and dozens of instances demonstrating that identifying the members of the target group is very, very simple. Especially since, given the environment surrounding such actions, no one is particularly worried if a few extras get caught up as well.
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Implications of collecting DNA samples

Postby Kag » Fri Jun 24, 2011 12:21 pm UTC

Cheezwhiz Jenkins wrote:Winston Smith's DNA and prints are now all over a book of thoughtcrime.


I doubt such a database could plausibly consist of physical samples, so said evil government would have to turn a full genetic sequence, stored in plaintext on some SQL server somewhere or something, into actual biological material. Is that even possible?

And, evil totalitarian government doesn't have to go through the trouble of forging your DNA and putting it somewhere compromising. They could just do what totalitarian regimes do already and lie about it.

That said, I'm not particularly comfortable with someone keeping a big DNA database, even if there aren't a lot of really dangerous ways to apply that data.
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Implications of collecting DNA samples

Postby Plasma Man » Fri Jun 24, 2011 12:57 pm UTC

I think that arguing against a DNA database misses the point. It's for the government (or police or whoever) to justify why they need to obtain and hold that information about us; so far, the arguments haven't been convincing to me.
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Re: Implications of collecting DNA samples

Postby gmalivuk » Fri Jun 24, 2011 1:32 pm UTC

Kag wrote:evil government would have to turn a full genetic sequence, stored in plaintext on some SQL server somewhere or something, into actual biological material. Is that even possible?
Yes. For quite some time, iirc.
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Re: Rape Culture (Obvious Trigger Warning)

Postby Zamfir » Fri Jun 24, 2011 1:37 pm UTC

Izawwlgood wrote:Do you mean there's a 50/50 chance that in a database of one million people, given a one in a million chance of false-positive, that any two of them will be a match?

Because it seems like having the defendant and the culprit as that one in a million is a more impressive coincidence than any two given random people.

Yeah, but that's exactly the danger of a database. Without the database the police first needs another reason to suspect someone. Then, if this reason is good enough, they can take DNA samples, and a match is rather convincing proof.

But with a database, people can become a suspect as result of a false positive match. And police forces aren't prefect paragons of objectivity. Once they have a suspect they have the tendency to build a case against them. There are enough examples how this process can lead to false convictions, including false confessions if the suspect is an easily influenced person. And being a suspect of a serious crime is very damaging in itself, even if the final verdict is that the evidence was inconclusive. People will lose their job if they have been suspected of serious crimes on DNA database grounds, even if there is no other hard proof.

So basically, easily searchable databases remove a layer of defense that we have against accidental accusations. They require a lot of extra restraint from the side of the police to prevent false positive accusations, and they require very careful treatment by courts if we want to prevent false convictions. And in both cases, any lack of competency on their side will be biased against a database-matched defendant. But neither police nor courts show much of an awareness of this problem.

EDIT: in case of DNA, the false-positive rate may be low enough to make this an overseeable problem, I don't know enough to judge that. But other biometric things have high false positive rates, like fingerprints or face-recognition. The same goes for other database-type info that can be useful for investigations, like cell phone locations or patterns in bank payments or internet use.
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Re: Implications of collecting DNA samples

Postby Deep_Thought » Fri Jun 24, 2011 2:17 pm UTC

The last stories I saw implied that the current DNA database did have quite a high false positive rate, because forensics/police had started using a "short sequence" technique or something that doesn't actually store that many base-pairs. However I can't remember the exact name of the technique so I don't think I'll be able to pull up the reports on it.
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Re: Implications of collecting DNA samples

Postby Arrian » Fri Jun 24, 2011 3:24 pm UTC

lutzj wrote:If you keep DNA samples on record of people who have been arrested for domestic abuse etc. (in addition to the myriad other sexual offenses which get you put in a database) you would then have something to compare to the results from rape kits and probably make many more arrests and convictions. As long as the police have reasonable cause to take a given person's info (privacy and all that) it seems like a good idea.


1) Are people who have committed domestic abuse/sexually abused domestic partners, much less those who have been accused of doing so, more likely than the general population to rape or sexually assault strangers? If not, which I find entirely plausible, (domestic abuse is very often about establishing/enforcing dominance in a relationship, something that's much less likely with strangers) then submitting their DNA to search in every case of stranger rape is not going to improve conviction rates any more than a similarly sized random sample of the population.

2) What is the rate of false positives in DNA searches? If it's even one or two percent, you're going to be exposing a lot of innocent people to invasive police investigations for no real reason. This is not only a massive invasion of privacy, it's a huge waste of police resources. If the police have to do a full investigation of an extra 5 or 10 people who matched a DNA test just to cover their bases in every rape case, (and they will or the defendant will play the "You got a DNA match but didn't investigate these people, you were dead set on arresting me regardless of the evidence..." card") do you think they'll do a better job of convicting actual rapists? Do you think convicted rapists will have a better defense if they can point to the fact that police randomly investigated him along with a whole lot of other people, and just decided to pick him to charge?

3) Isn't going from universally required fingerprint databases (which aren't here yet) to universally required DNA databases the definition of a slippery slope?

4) Can't say this enough, but what's the false positive rate? (And what's the false negative rate? I wouldn't want to be the investigator who found a suspect through traditional police work only to have him eliminated due to a false negative by a broad spectrum DNA search.)

We don't need to go into hypotheticals to find privacy issues with this type of DNA database: You are subjecting people to higher scrutiny in every crime committed simply because they have been accused of a different crime. This exposes them to investigation due to false positives, and effectively punishes them despite the legal system determining that they did not commit any crimes. (At the least through heightened police scrutiny: You think having cops come around to your employer or neighbors asking about your behavior _isn't_ going to negatively impact you?)

As far as creating a universal DNA database goes, I think the false positive issue is going to be dominant. Even with a tiny fraction of a percent of a chance for false positives, you're still going to get them when looking through a national population. Add that to tens or hundreds of thousands of searches done a year and the system is likely to end up somewhat useless. It's also likely to crowd out traditional investigative processes since it's much easier to run a search in a database than it is to go around talking to dozens of people trying to corroborate stories. (Ask me sometime about how much of a barrier to troubleshooting network sniffers turn out to be.)

Remember that the police who dumpster dive for a used coffee cup have a reason to believe that person committed a crime. Pr (DNA Match | All other evidence points to this guy) is a whole lot different than Pr (DNA match | Entire population of the country). Your likelihood of getting a false positive or negative when testing the DNA of someone you have a very good case against is tremendously lower than the probability of coming up with a false positive or negative in a random sample of millions of people.
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Re: Implications of collecting DNA samples

Postby Aaeriele » Fri Jun 24, 2011 4:07 pm UTC

Arrian wrote:Your likelihood of getting a false positive or negative when testing the DNA of someone you have a very good case against is tremendously lower than the probability of coming up with a false positive or negative in a random sample of millions of people.


It stands to reason that if police started getting 5+ positive matches for every sample they ran, they'd stop assuming that any single one of those people was the definitive suspect. Part of the reason why a positive match is seen as such good evidence right now is because the false positive rate is (artificially, due to size of comparison base) lower.
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Re: Implications of collecting DNA samples

Postby Plasma Man » Fri Jun 24, 2011 4:22 pm UTC

In that case, they'd have to look for other evidence to try to work out who could have done it. Which is what they would have to do without a DNA database.
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Re: Implications of collecting DNA samples

Postby Aaeriele » Fri Jun 24, 2011 4:33 pm UTC

Plasma Man wrote:In that case, they'd have to look for other evidence to try to work out who could have done it. Which is what they would have to do without a DNA database.


Yes, and? Evidence is not a binary system; just because something doesn't give you an open-and-shut case doesn't mean it's not worth having, or wouldn't be better than not having it.


It seems clear that DNA evidence isn't open-and-shut as it is, so I'm not sure what your point is.
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Re: Implications of collecting DNA samples

Postby Deep_Thought » Fri Jun 24, 2011 5:00 pm UTC

@Myself: Ah, the technique is called low-copy number (LCN), and it applies to the size of the initial sample required, not the number of base-pairs needed. Strange how these things come back to you.

I think what Plasma Man is getting at* is that having a DNA Database allows the police to go on fishing expeditions that will shift the assumption of innocence towards one of guilt. The LCN technique above can be used with incredibly tiny amounts of material, meaning that you are likely to pull up DNA from anyone who was wandered past the scene of the crime recently. The worry is that instead of then narrowing the suspect pool with other evidence, the police will simply haul all those people in for questioning and say "We know you were at the scene. Now tell us why you didn't do it". After all, it saves the police the effort of eliminating suspects if they can just ask them to do it themselves. At best this would be an inconvenience, at the worst you'd end up with people convicted just because they can't provide a decent alibi and their DNA happened to be at the scene.

I admit that is an extreme hypothetical, but it's one I don't want to edge closer to. If the police have other evidence that implicates me in a crime they are welcome to ask me for a DNA sample in order to eliminate me from their enquiries. I do not want DNA evidence to be the start of their enquiries.

*At least I hope so, because it's the point I would have made.
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