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US preps vast DNA dragnet

Round up the usual suspects

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In a move reminiscent of Nazi Germany and 21st-Century Britain, the US federal government is about to implement rules requiring routine DNA collection from suspected illegal immigrants and anyone arrested by federal authorities, regardless of whether they are ever convicted of a crime. DNA collection will be performed in any situation where fingerprints would normally be collected, and only a court order will suffice to have DNA profiles removed from federal databases.

The FBI has been given the task of maintaining the immense DNA database that the Feds will shortly be assembling. Given the FBI's track record in managing major IT projects, such as its $600m Trilogy debacle (including the complete failure of its $170m Virtual Case File system), one could be forgiven for questioning the wisdom of entrusting vast reams of extremely detailed and intimate data to its care.

The new initiative is part of an amendment added during the recent renewal of the Clinton Administration's famous Violence Against Women Act, a loathsome piece of sexist politics that essentially criminalizes masculinity, and implies that we should all be comfortable with violence against men and children.

One target of the amendment are so-called sexual predators, who seem to be multiplying with terrifying speed, at least in the imaginations of red-top tabloid editors and frightened women.

"Obviously, the bigger the DNA database, the better," Lynn Parrish, a flack for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, said in an interview with the New York Times. "If this had been implemented years ago, it could have prevented many crimes. Rapists are generalists. They don’t just rape, they also murder."

And since all men are potential rapists ... well, you get the picture. Stop me before I murder again.

But it's not just professional prudes and bitter misandrists who welcome the development. Racists and xenophobes are also quite charmed. One of the amendment's sponsors, immigrant-bashing US Senator Jon Kyl (Republican, Arizona), noted, again to the NYTimes, that "the number of sexual assaults committed by illegal immigrants is astonishing."

Kyl is also much concerned about Islamo-fascist terrorists migrating illegally from culturally-Catholic Mexico, the numbers of which he no doubt also regards as "astonishing". It must be a pleasure for Kyl to be able to play both the terrorist card and the sexual predator card in appealing to the xenophobic yokels who vote for him.

It's always charming to see America united in fear and loathing: the redneck joining hands with the misandrist, stigmatising terrorists, foreigners, men, and sexual predators together in an ironic melting pot of brotherhood. And of course, now they can all be registered in a government database of the most profoundly detailed nature for easier demonisation.

The ostensible purpose of mass DNA profiling is to aid in identification, and we don't dispute that it can be a real help both in identification and in solving crimes. There are many surfaces that can't retain fingerprints but which can retain DNA. So, yes, it can be useful. But whereas a fingerprint is an identifying characteristic, a DNA profile is immensely more than that, so that its potential uses, and potential abuses, are virtually limitless by comparison.

The amendment's lobbyists and Congressional sponsors, and its bureaucratic boosters in government, like to talk of DNA profiling as nothing more than a new and improved system of fingerprinting. But is so much more than that: it is a system of gathering the most intimate knowledge of citizens into government databases, from which extraordinary power springs. This is the kind of power that all governments lust after, and the kind which it behoves citizens to deny in all but the most compelling cases after considerable hurdles of restraint have been legitimately surmounted. Its collection and use should never become routine.

The potential consequences of entrusting such powerful knowledge of each individual to government busybodies are immensely graver than with fingerprints; therefore, the bar for collection and use of DNA profiles must be higher than for fingerprints. As the potential consequences escalate, so must the restraints.

Unfortunately, a Republican-controlled Congress last year lifted the restraints on government access to some of the most powerful knowledge it can possibly acquire, in its slavish pandering to law-and-order and counterterrorist issues.

It will not be long before DNA collection becomes a routine feature of all arrests throughout the USA, as it now is in the UK. The USA will soon join Great Britain, inside the winner's circle of noisy bleaters about liberty, in succumbing to the natural lust all governments have for the tools of totalitarianism. It is interesting, in this cross-Atlantic cultural exchange between the USA and the UK, to watch both partners reciprocally harmonising their civil liberties protections ever downward, to match the most loathsome of each other's practices. ®

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