What’s wrong with a National DNA Register?
A personal view on why centrally storing everyone's DNA is a 'flawless' idea.
Every now and again, you have an idea that seems so flawless you instinctively feel there must be something wrong with it – and closer inspection usually proves that there is. But I’ve inspected an idea that I had recently with a microscope and I am unable to find the flaw. I know it’s got to be there; I just cannot find it.
Here’s the idea: whenever a baby is born, it is given a ‘heel-prick’ test, which involves taking a tiny sample of blood from the heel to test for certain blood disorders. So why not extract a smidgeon of the baby’s DNA from each sample and store it, together with the baby’s name, date and place of birth, and parents’ names? We would thus have a national register of the DNA of every individual born in this country after a given date. And policemen of the future, when investigating serious crimes where the criminal had left DNA at the scene, could find the culprit’s name at the click of a mouse.
That’s it. Now, where’s the problem?
The first thing one thinks of is that this must pose some kind of threat to civil liberties. The very phrase ‘National DNA Register’ has an ominous sound to it. But what liberty is being threatened? The liberty to commit crimes such as rape and murder? We don’t have this liberty anyway, nor should we want it. But isn’t it infringing the liberty of the babies in some way? Not at all. They already get their heels pricked anyway; they’re not being asked to submit to any additional procedure.
If we took compulsory samples from adults, there might be cause for complaint. In fact, there would be a massive outcry, especially from those with undetected crimes to their name. But I am not proposing that we apply the scheme retrospectively (though its success would kick in a lot quicker if we did). Testing innocent babies threatens nobody. The test would be universal, so nobody is discriminated against. And nobody has to carry a card; no new laws are created.
Ah, but we live in a benign democracy right now. What if in the future we were to live under a more oppressive government? Surely this National Register would be a godsend to a dictator? I really cannot see how. Dictators know who they want to oppress – that is, anyone who opposes them. You become a target for persecution by oppositional activities, not by carelessly leaving your DNA around. But in any case, this is a fatuous objection: you might as well complain that the electoral register or the telephone directory is a handy tool for dictators. And does anyone seriously expect the UK to become a dictatorship imminently?
Let’s try again. Would it be prohibitively costly to administer? I admit that I haven’t costed it, but I don’t think it is very expensive to store information these days. It would certainly be cheaper than David Blunkett’s ID cards scheme, and far more efficacious in preventing crime.
There’s a point, though. Would it actually be efficacious? Can you really catch criminals by DNA? Yes, is the short answer. Donato Bilancia, the Italian ‘Riviera killer’ was convicted on the evidence of DNA from cigarette butts found at the scenes of his crimes. And Surrey police tracked down Craig Harman, who killed a lorry driver by throwing a brick through his windscreen, by finding that his DNA was a close match to that of a relative with a criminal record. But the police have to get lucky in such cases. If Harman’s relative had not had a criminal record, there would have been no way of finding him. Not without a National DNA Register….
But criminals might get clever about not leaving their DNA around, or might substitute the DNA of others in order to frame them. A geneticist once told me that the best way to baffle the boys from forensics would be to steal the dust bag from one of the vacuum cleaners at Heathrow and scatter it all over the scene of the crime. I think it unlikely that many criminals would be ingenious or painstaking enough to go to such lengths, but, yes, there is need for caution here. However, there is always a need to treat evidence with caution. And there is one crime where it would be very difficult indeed not to deposit one’s own DNA, and all but impossible to plant someone else’s: the crime of rape.
Another possible objection is that this scheme, even if it succeeded in bringing down crime, it would be about treating the symptoms rather than the root of the disease. Crime is caused by sociological factors; it’s these that we need to address. I couldn’t agree more. But until we have sorted out these sociological factors – poverty, or inequality, or anomie, or the breakdown of the family (select according to political prejudice) – we do have to deal with the symptoms. I long for a brave new world in which nobody feels the need to commit rape, GBH or murder any more. But just until we get it, can’t we, you know, have a National DNA register?
The point of this scheme is not to come over all Daily Mailish about the need for stiff punishments for these evil criminals. Stiff punishments may satisfy people’s self-righteous anger, but they are not much use as a deterrent. High probability of detection – that’s the real deterrent. The National DNA Register would not cause more criminals to be banged up; it would result in far fewer serious crimes being committed. If we acted now we could make a safer world for our children and grandchildren.
Providing, that is, the scheme really is flawless. But it can’t be, can it? Because if this was such a good idea, somebody would have thought of it before. Wouldn’t they?
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