September 5, 2007

Visit Britain. Leave Your DNA Sample At The Door.

A senior law lord in the UK has proposed that the government take DNA samples from the entire population and store the records in a national database. Not only would that order apply to every British subject and resident, but it would also apply to tourists as well:

The whole population and every UK visitor should be added to the national DNA database, a senior judge has said.

Lord Justice Sedley said the Wales and England system, under which 4m people's DNA is held whether guilty or cleared of a crime, was "indefensible".

He added it would be fairer to include "everybody, guilty or innocent", as it was biased against ethnic minorities.

This isn't a passing bit of lunacy from an isolated judge, either. Tories have called for a Parliamentary debate on making the DNA database compulsory. The president of the Black Police Association claims that only through compulsory and universal registration can the database be free of racial profiling and discrimination.

One question does seem worth debating: how long should records of individuals be maintained in the database? Fingerprints are never culled here in the US; once given, they remain in the system forever, and DNA appears to get the same treatment. In Britain, people arrested for minor crimes and those acquitted want their DNA records removed from the national database. The compulsory database advocates argue that once every person's DNA gets entered, no discrimination occurs, and therefore it solves the problem.

Should DNA records expire or get expunged at a certain point for some people? No one has argued that for fingerprint records. Due to the nature of my work in the defense and security industries, I have been fingerprinted numerous times, and all of those remain in the system and accessible to investigators Should those records be pulled now that I no longer work in those industries? I don't think so, and I don't see the issue with DNA records either. It's a passive database, only useful for matching samples found elsewhere, just as with fingerprints.

Forcing people to surrender DNA samples when no crime has been committed seems like another story altogether. It would be especially objectionable as a threshold to entry into the UK, and I believe I would spend my tourist dollars elsewhere if such a requirement existed.


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Comments (32)

Posted by Amendment X | September 5, 2007 7:55 AM

I've been pondering a return trip to Wales.
DNA would be interpreted by me as "Do Not Attempt".

Posted by Jeff Crump | September 5, 2007 8:09 AM

George Orwell's totalitarian government of Oceania has been born.

Posted by Dave | September 5, 2007 8:09 AM

This reminds me of the movie "Gattaca". If you haven't seen the movie, there's a scene where police are sweeping a crime scene for evidence and find an eyelash belonging to the protagonist, which they match to him by DNA records.

Interesting movie.

Posted by TomB | September 5, 2007 8:11 AM

This is a similar situation as with pictures taken at the airports, or other places: Who keeps them, where and for how long?
Massive data bases are irreversible and fighting them is useless. I think we have to focus on defining proper ways of using them, who has and who hasn't access, and a clearly defined and effective ways to correct errors and mistakes. If properly setup, this kind of data bases may help fighting crime the same way, as fingerprint database did in the past. Being in denial will only make things worse, since data bases will be created anyway, but we will have no control over their use.
And yes, we don't have to visit Great Britain.

Posted by John Steele | September 5, 2007 8:13 AM

And the Brits are objecting to OUR post-9/11 visa and entry procedures. Now that's chutzpah :-)

Posted by unclesmrgol | September 5, 2007 8:24 AM

Visiting a foreign country is a privilege extended by the foreign country, not a right.

This levy on a potential visitor is in the same class as the background checks currently done by the USA prior to a European's departure. The Europeans have screamed bloody murder about what they consider a violation of their right to privacy. Many have voiced the same feelings as the Captain -- if I need to be security checked, I will not travel.

In traveling, there is no right to privacy. I felt the Europeans were wrong in criticizing the US, and I'm not about to criticize their attempts to make travel safer.

I'm deliberately generalizing this from the UK to the EU, because it seems that once one country does this and it passes EU muster, they all do.

The real people I am concerned about with regard to DNA samples are the insurance companies. Blue Cross is already denying treatment for genetic diseases if a DNA sample indicates one -- on the principle of "preexisting condition". I worry far less about the government holding these for identification than the uses to which the insurance companies would put them.

Besides, I think I'm better than Boba Fett.

Posted by Captain Ed | September 5, 2007 8:28 AM

How is a DNA sample a security protocol? It takes at least a few days to process it and match it to the database, and then it's only useful if you've committed a crime in the UK prior to your arrival. That's a neat trick for first-time tourists.

Posted by hrun | September 5, 2007 8:29 AM

Forcing people to surrender DNA samples when no crime has been committed seems like another story altogether. It would be especially objectionable as a threshold to entry into the UK, and I believe I would spend my tourist dollars elsewhere if such a requirement existed.

Rather than simply stating that surrendering a DNA sample is altogether different from the mandatory photographing and fingerprinting foreigners are subject to when they enter the US, could you explain WHY it actually is different?

Posted by ajh1492 | September 5, 2007 9:10 AM

Why not just have a number or barcode tatooed to your wrist. Or better yet, forced transdermal RFID tag for everyone.

Posted by docjim505 | September 5, 2007 9:17 AM

If you're not a criminal, why should you object to giving your DNA or letting the government store it forever?

By the same token, if you're not a criminal, why object to the government maintaining a permanent record of your fingerprints? A current photo? A national ID card? Routine searches of your house or car? If you're not a criminal, what have you to fear?


There's always a fine line between the reasonable powers the police ought to have to keep the peace in a free society and those taken by a country on its way to becoming a police state. It becomes a question of how much you trust your government. In his history of the Second World War (I believe it was in the volume "Their Finest Hour"), Sir Winston Churchill discusses this to some extent. He points out that the British government, faced with the prospect of nazi invasion, took unprecedented powers and actions, including interning British citizens judged to be possible enemy collaborators (much like the democrat party today). However, he notes that the powers and actions essentially ended with the end of the war.

It may be that, when the threat of islamofascist terrorism takes its place in the history books with Napoleon, the Kaiser, naziism and international communism as threats to the peace and order of the world that no longer exist, we will no longer have to think about DNA databases and biometric ID cards. Until then, we need to think very carefully how to balance our liberties with the need to protect ourselves from maniacs who will stick at nothing to kill us and destroy the liberties that we cherish.

Posted by filistro | September 5, 2007 9:32 AM

There's a huge difference between fingerprints and DNA. All a fingerprint shows is that you were (probably) physically present at a certain location.

A DNA sample carries, in essence, your entire self including your parentage and your propensity to ceratin illnesses.

Certainly more info than I would willingly put in the hands of any government.

Posted by hrun | September 5, 2007 9:43 AM

How is a DNA sample a security protocol? It takes at least a few days to process it and match it to the database, and then it's only useful if you've committed a crime in the UK prior to your arrival. That's a neat trick for first-time tourists.

I doubt that anybody seriously claims that a DNA sample is a security protocol (i.e. intended to identify or screen the incoming travelers). Rather, it is a way to identify suspects once a crime has been committed.

I understand that DNA samples can be used to identify a propensity to genetic diseases, whereas fingerprints can not. Is that the only objection to the collection of DNA samples? The possibility that the government may pass this data on to insurance agencies?

Btw. as a visitor to this country on a visa, you also have to answer questions about potential diseases you may be carrying.

Posted by richard mcenroe | September 5, 2007 10:22 AM

here's a plan: save the Brits the worry of you coming to their country and spend your money in Israel. Cleaner beaches, warmer water, gorgeous women and a first-class tech base.

Posted by Joe Tallman | September 5, 2007 10:22 AM

Now if we had a DNA database combined with John Edward's mandatory government directed health care visits, we could identify people who will become drug, tobacco addicts etc. and just have them snuffed before they do any damage.

Posted by Christoph | September 5, 2007 10:25 AM

You ever see the movie Gattaca, Fred?

Because that's where this would inevitably lead.

Minus the astronauts in business suits.

Posted by Christoph | September 5, 2007 10:27 AM

Ed, sorry. I just came from a discussion on Fred's new website (which is good) and his new ad (which is not).

Posted by TomB | September 5, 2007 10:39 AM

There is no denying, that the DNA technology can change the crime fighting world. Just look for the effects of using the present, meager DNA database in solving old, almost cold files. You may learn how not to leave your fingerprints, but not leaving a DNA at the crime scene is a totally new thing. It would be stupid and even immoral not to use this technology to fight crime. So rather than bitching and protesting, we should think of how to define proper use of this tool.
Frankly I am not buying the "Protection from the Government" argument against the DNA data bank. It is however our job (and not an easy one) to make the Government work for us and our interests (as individuals and as a Nation, and I am not sure in which order) and not the special interest groups and the screaming Left only.

Posted by viking01 | September 5, 2007 11:01 AM

May as well follow a Hillary "Mother Russia" Clinton style solution and bar code everyone's foreheads. Then benevolent Big Brother can swipe your head across the scanner like a gallon of milk or a sack of potatoes.

Given rampant crime in London largely caused by their gun-control nuts it may soon be even odds of one's DNA ending up at the Royal Coroner's Office versus that of the Royal DNA Database. In some parts of London wearing a self-applied toe tag works better than most other identification systems. The easiest way completely disappear in the UK is to join the long waiting line for elective surgery.

Posted by Alex | September 5, 2007 11:04 AM

It is really depressing to see the Tories backing this as well as the uber-nanny-statism of denying medical treatment to those who do not act healthy enough, whatever that means. The Tories are completely lost. Most Brits when asked feel like the government is out of control but there is no one willing to risk the wrath of the Beeb. Maggie must be spinning in her grave. What? She's not dead1

Posted by Steve Skubinna | September 5, 2007 11:08 AM

I agree that expanded use of DNA data is inevitable. It's just too useful.

My concern is that we are entrusting even more information to governments, which are inherently untrustworthy. It's equally inevitable that where potential for abuse of power exists, that power shall eventually be abused. No government, however totalitarian, is monolithic. Every one is composed of various cliques and alliances, sometimes competing, sometimes cooperating, and always influenced by personal ambition, fear, and avarice. Governments in toto have no ethics - only the composite of the ethics of their constituent components.

Whether it's by a rogue element, a single self aggrandizing individual, or the result of a duly constituted program, people are going to be burned by their own DNA data.

So my question is, how do we prepare to deal with that? How do we insulate ourselves from the Mike Nifongs out there? Or less egregiously but more potentially dangerous, how do we insulate ourselves from the Andrew Cuomos and Janet Renos out there?

Posted by FedUp | September 5, 2007 1:03 PM

Everyone who will be surprised when Mr. Edwards jumps on this bandwagon... stand on your heads!

Posted by unclesmrgol | September 5, 2007 1:22 PM


I've traveled on a visa before (as probably have you). I've never had it issued in less than a couple of weeks. Two trips to the embassy is standard -- one to turn in the application, and the next to get my passport stamped. Plenty of time for a lab to do my DNA and see if it matches a persona-non-grata.

And, again, I worry more about insurance companies than governments. Its the insurance companies which have a real track record of using this data inappropriately to cherry pick.

Posted by Count to 10 | September 5, 2007 4:19 PM

From what I understand, the kind of DNA records used in law enforcement is the pattern of the repeat of meaningless sequences (junk DNA). This is sufficient to make a near-unique identification, and carries no information on the meaningful parts of the genome (coloration, body type, genetic disorders ). You don't need GATAGA for genetic fingerprints.

I'm guessing the purpose of requiring visitors to contribute is so that they can track down murderers, rapists, etc. that visit and commit a crime.

Also, don't confuse the innocuous collection of information with the very real harassment of searches and confiscation. The "unreasonable searches and seizures" clause in the Bill of Rights was never intended to let us keep secrets, it was meant to prevent harassment.

Posted by Count to 10 | September 5, 2007 4:23 PM

By the way, how are they collecting the DNA samples? Blood samples? Skin scrapings? Can you do it with saliva? How invasive this is could make a significant difference.

Posted by RD | September 5, 2007 4:43 PM

A person's DNA is left everytime they visit Great Britain or any country for that matter. It is left on eating utensils, cigarettes, drinking glasses,toothbrushes, facial tissues and whatever. I'll bet any number of waiters, reporters, and FBI agents already have President Clinton's DNA profile as well as Hillary's, Chelsea's and that boy supposedly living in Australia. It is a fact of life so get used to it.Between cameras, internet searches and illegal tapping into phones or spyware there are probably very few secrets in this life.

Posted by Amendment X | September 5, 2007 4:46 PM

I once heard the "You having nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide" originally was used by the Gestapo. Look at "COPS" and listen to them ask "Do you mind if I search your vehicle?" And if, exercising our/their 4th Amendment rights the individual says "I do not consent to search." or a like phrase, the cop will use a phrase very similar to the one above. And then hold you for an officer K-9 sniff search with no probable cause other than you exercising that pesky 4th Amendment right.
And, if a DNA sample is taken, how long do you think the Feds will acquire those sample results?
And the proposal to have RFID chips put in our passports for "higher security"? Think again:
But, of course, the government says safety procedures are in place.
Well, that cinches it for me! No more paranoia. The government has assured me I have nothing to worry about. Whew! I was certainly concerned for a moment there, you know. But, the government isn't saying "I'm from the government and I'm here to help." They're saying "I'm from the government and I've already helped you, rest assured."
Big difference, say what?

Posted by RD | September 5, 2007 4:49 PM

I should have added except for "where in the world is Hsu?"

Posted by viking01 | September 5, 2007 5:52 PM

Sadly, Slick Clinton has left a sample of his DNA in the gutter of nearly every place he's visited.

Agreement on the insurance angle. If your DNA profile is marketed as loosely as Equifax, Experian and similar do your credit report every day then you can throw away any pre-existing condition disclosure forms for health insurance. They'll already know your genome possibly before you do. Big money to the official who leaks them like Janet "Barbecue" Reno did the FBI files.

Errors? Press 9 repeatedly on your touch-tone phone then listen carefully to the "Not our problem" message.

Posted by Ray | September 5, 2007 10:06 PM

I don't know why so many people are opposed to giving DNA samples. I guess it all boils down to how the samples will be used.

If they are used just as a means if identification (like photos, signatures, and fingerprints), I don't see a problem as it is necessary to identify people accurately. This could very well lead to the discovery and capture of international criminals, for example, or to id your dead body after an accident or fire, so what's "big brother" about that?

If it is used to determine a person's genetic profile as a means of denying entry due to some genetic diseases, then I would have a problem as I don't think having MD or another genetic disease should prevent people from visiting a country.

If it was used to detecting infectious diseases that could spread death and illness, I don't have much of a problem with that.

Since it very difficult (not to mention expensive) to create a complete genetic profile from a DNA sample (one that would identify genetic or infectious diseases), I don't think the last two scenarios are really going to happen, at least not within the next few decades. Since it will most likely be used as a means if identification, I don't see a problem. If you're worried about some government compiling a database of citizen and visitor identities, then you must no live in America. After all, you DO have a drivers license or ID card and a SSN (not to mention birth and death certificates), don't you?

Posted by Daniel Polwarth | September 6, 2007 10:56 AM

You know, I am a Brit, and I am quite comfortable with the idea of my DNA being stored on a database.

The argument over here has been less about putting DNA on a database per se, as it does as to who has access to it. I don't doubt the police can be trusted with it, but no one wants insurance companies to get their hands on it (and that may be a temptation for cash-strapped future governments.)

As for tourists, I don't think you need worry about having DNA samples taken unless you have a criminal record or are a Muslim. Americans will probably get a special pass anyway.

I'm not saying I agree totally with it, but I don't feel a great need to object to it either.

Posted by viking01 | September 6, 2007 1:14 PM

Although this thread is practically in the archive...

There are already less invasive ways of identification such as retinal or thumb print scanners.

If a toady like Janet Reno could play fast and loose with FBI files for her puppet masters one can imagine how reckless she might be with DNA samples. We're not sure how your hair / blood was found last month at a Little Rock crime scene Mr. Obama even if you never left Antarctica for the past ten years.

As with credit reports the cost of its compilation is spread over many sources contributing the information. If it is salable information one can be certain (in the computer age) that someone will compile it. The entire genome need not be mapped only the most profitable parts.

The usefulness of the information can extend far beyond insurance companies. If you are applying for a 30 year home mortgage wouldn't it be monetarily advantageous for the bank / financial agency to know whether you'll still be alive to make payments in 30 years? A comparison with one's parents DNA information and lifespan with the loan applicants would be useful in accepting or denying the loan application. When one realizes that much of home finance is already often bankrolled by insurance premiums the companies having present or future access to such information and the application of that data for their benefit would be practically unavoidable. Not to mention should they not it would put them at a competitive disadvantage against business rivals who do.

Posted by MegaTroopX | September 9, 2007 10:27 PM

Well, scratch Britain of my list of places to ever visit.

If I'm not under arrest or back in the Army, attempting to rip off my DNA will just get yours splattered all over the landscape.

It's like Britain can't wait to die. This is why they're subject and not citizens.

I might have to take richard mcenroe's suggestion.

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