Thursday, April 17, 2008

Eric Blair lies spinning in his grave

The United States is about to make a dramatic shift that will undermine what little privacy we have remaining. Soon, instead of collecting DNA samples from federal prisoners as they are processed into the prison system after convictions are secured, those samples will be collected upon arrest.

Let's go over that again...instead of collecting samples of convicted criminals, they will soon collect samples from everyone who has any contact with law enforcement, no matter how brief.
The initiative, to be published as a proposed rule in the Federal Register in coming days, reflects a congressional directive that DNA from arrestees be collected to help catch a range of domestic criminals. But it also requires, for the first time, the collection of DNA samples from people other than U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents who are detained by U.S. authorities.

Although fingerprints have long been collected for virtually every arrestee, privacy advocates say the new policy expands the DNA database, run by the FBI, beyond its initial aim of storing information on the perpetrators of violent crimes.

They also worry that people could be detained erroneously and swept into the database without cause, and that DNA samples from those who are never convicted of a crime, because of acquittal or a withdrawal of charges, might nonetheless be permanently retained by the FBI.

"Innocent people don't belong in a so-called criminal database," said Tania Simoncelli, science adviser for the American Civil Liberties Union. "We're crossing a line."

She said that if the samples are kept, they could one day be analyzed for sensitive information such as diseases and ancestry.

The expansion of the National DNA Index System (NDIS) was created as a result of the DNA Identification Act of 1994, to stor the genetic profiles of people convicted of serious violent crimes. The database was expanded undeer the banner of catching serial rapists and other perpetrators of violent crime, and was authorized by Congress as an amendment to the Violence Against Women Act, broadening the scope to include all people convicted of any felony, and it allowed the states to upload the DNA profile of all people convicted of misdemeanors and from people who were arrested and charged with a crime, before they even stand trial. In 2006, the rules were relaxed once more, allowing the states to submit data from people who were detained but never charged.

The new regulation will apply to all federal agencies and agents that have the power to take individuals into custody. It is estimated that the new rule will allow the feds to add biometric data on 1.2 million people every year to the massive database they are compiling to keep track of every last one of us. Of that number, about 140,000 will be Americans arrested in conjunction with a federal crime; the rest will likely be immigrants, some documented and some not, (which is how they will frame it to sell it to a gullible, xenophobic public). Very few of those immigrants will be involved in any criminal activity after they enter the U.S.

The rules say that samples are to be purged when convictions are reversed, or charges are dismissed or never filed, but civil rights groups fear that the data purges wouldn't really take place, not completely, anyway.

Look at Virginia - the state adopted one of the first arrestee laws in 2003, and just over half of all samples collected qualify to be removed from the database, but the process of purging the data can take years. Plural.

This is one of those issues that brings out my inner libertarian - I was uneasy about embarking on this path in 1994 - and the fears I had then have been borne out. We aren't just collecting DNA from individuals that have been convicted of a violent crime. Mission creep has set in and now, just 14 years on, we are collecting specimens from everyone who has contact with law enforcement.

What will be next as the beast moves down the foodchain? Pre employment samples? How long before they are collecting specimens from every child born and of every individual crossing the border or otherwise clearing customs?

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