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Excerpt: "On March 19, New York governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law a bill expanding the ability of the police to collect DNA samples from citizens of the state. The state has been able to collect samples from those convicted of certain violent felonies since 1996."

New legislation in New York expands the NYPD's ability to collect DNA evidence. (photo: Daily Mail)
New legislation in New York expands the NYPD's ability to collect DNA evidence. (photo: Daily Mail)

Are Police Building a Massive DNA Database?

By Scott Lemieux, AlterNet

25 March 12


n March 19, New York governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law a bill expanding the ability of the police to collect DNA samples from citizens of the state. The state has been able to collect samples from those convicted of certain violent felonies since 1996. The new law, however, permits the the police to get genetic samples from almost anyone convicted of any crime in New York state. People convicted of possessing low quantities of marijuana for the first time are exempt, but otherwise even those convicted of non-violent misdemeanors are subject to the law. Like a lot of "crime control" legislation, the bill passed without a great deal of opposition in the Assembly. But also like a lot of legislation purporting to combat crime, the benefits of the bill are more dubious than its supporters claim and the civil liberties problems posed by the bill were largely ignored.

The collection of DNA evidence creates potential problems for the privacy and dignity of citizens. The collection of genetic material indentifying individuals gives the state important information that undeniably creates the potential for abuse. American history is rife with examples of personal information being collected and stored by the state and used for purposes of harassment and blackmail. The harsher punishments given out to Occupy Wall Street protestors who do not agree to have their irises scanned by the police reminds us that data collected by the state allegedly to identify criminals can also be used to identify (and harass) "political dissidents." There is also the possibility that creating a class of "usual suspects" can lead to false prosecutions.

Admittedly, DNA evidence is different, and potentially more compatible with civil liberties, than other kinds of state surveillance, and civil libertarians would be unwise to reflexively reject any creation of DNA databases. First, while DNA evidence can sometimes lead to false positives (the identification of an innocent person as guilty), it is less likely to do so than other common forms of evidence. Second, DNA evidence can be a powerful tool for exonerating the innocent. DNA evidence has been crucial to many of the cases in which innocent people have been freed from lengthy prison sentences or death row, and it has also been critical in revealing the flaws in eyewitness identification.

So it's possible for a state DNA database that takes steps to protect the privacy of individuals, makes potentially exonerating DNA evidence available to people convicted of crimes, and ensures the quality of the testing process to both reduce crime and increase protection of civil liberties. Whether the law signed by Cuomo does this is another matter. The New York bill sweeps too widely, and does not do enough to ensure the integrity of the collection and testing process.

As the New York Civil Liberies Union noted in a statement following the passage of the new legislation, the bill "does nothing to address the increasingly apparent inadequacies of the state's regulatory oversight of police crime labs, nor does it establish rigorous statewide standards regarding collection, handling and analysis of DNA evidence to catch or prevent error and ensure the integrity of the databank."

Even more problematically, the law "does too little to ensure that people accused of crimes have access to DNA evidence to prove their innocence."

Given that the potential of DNA to exonerate the wrongly convicted too often goes unrealized, the failure to ensure that not only the police but also the convicted have access to the data is a problem.

Collecting DNA data is not, in itself, necessarily problematic, and indeed has the potential to increase convictions of the guilty while exonerating the innocent. But the new New York statute is not the right way to go about it. It sweeps an excessively broad number of people into the database with inadequate justification, and doesn't do enough to address potential abuses of the system. However laudable its goals, the Empire State can achieve them more effectively and with less potential for the violations of civil liberties than it did with this hastily passed legislation. your social media marketing partner


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+13 # DaveM 2012-03-25 10:04
Minnesota, for some time, collected DNA from everyone who was arrested for a potential felony, regardless of the outcome of the case. The law was struck down by the Supreme Court in a relatively short time, but to my knowledge, none of the samples collected in the meantime were destroyed.
+8 # John Locke 2012-03-25 13:11
What bothers me is that this will allow the state to fabricate, more easily, cases against protestors or their leaders. And this has been known to happen more than we care to admit! Several people on death row were exonerated after evidence came out (often on a death bed) that a person was framed by the police, one case I recall was an officer who framed the boyfriend of his "girlfriend" to get him out of the way...
+2 # Underledge 2012-03-25 11:15
It is one thing to collect a DNA sample but another to have it analyzed and put into a data system in a timely fashion.
+1 # Granny Weatherwax 2012-03-26 09:14
Unfortunately with the pace of technology, this is not going to stay that way for very long.
+6 # anarchteacher 2012-03-25 11:38

Check out this amazing presentation by Alfred W. McCoy, PhD, on the "Surveillance State: Philippine Pacification & the Making of the U.S. Internal Security Apparatus." McCoy outlines the birth of the Surveillance State in the information technology revolution of the 1870s and 1880s (invention of the telephone, typewriter, widespread photographic film processing, electrical and telegraph networks, punch cards, and biometrics such as fingerprinting) and its later convergence with the imperatives of empire in the American colonial occupation of the Philippines after the Spanish-America n War.
It was during the Philippine Insurrection that modern police and military intelligence techniques and data collection technology emerged, later becoming the key component of the National Security State. McCoy particularly pointed to the ongoing seminal role Ralph Henry Van Deman played in this process. His spell-binding presentation was largely based upon his two recent books, Policing the Empire: The United States, The Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State; and Colonial Crucible: Empire in the Making of the Modern American State, edited by McCoy and Francisco A. Scarano.
+11 # RMDC 2012-03-25 11:41
Of course they are. They are also collecting other biometric identifiers like digital face scans for recognition and iris scans.

The FBI has its data center in West Virginia (there may be others, too) where it claims it intends to have files and biometric identifiers of every human on earth. This was a big part of the "surge" in Iraq. Everyone was picked up by the US military and scanned and a file started. These files contain the whole family history. People are categorized as "OK, safe" all the way to the worst category "kill on sight." This was discussed in the Wash Post back in 2006 or 07.

The USG and its hydra-headed police organizations intends to police the entire earth by collecting information on everyone and then mining the data for potential "criminal" tendencies or potentials. This is the worst nightmare scenario imaginable. But it is here.
+5 # Eric Jackson 2012-03-25 13:38
Panama is now getting into this, and in some ways the privacy issue is more than and in other was less than in the USA. So will employers be able to pay a bribe and get information with which to discriminate among job applicants? Or how about insurance companies, or marketers, getting this information? One who sells skin ointments, for example, might find a gold mine in a database full of people with a tendency to get eczema.
+5 # John Locke 2012-03-25 15:26
Eric: Boy are you right on, you know it will all come to pass! It will end up being a marketing tool. as well as a tool for discrimination. Insurance companies will be the first, DNA should be able to tell what diseases a person is prone to, making it impossible to get coverage.
+5 # Billy Bob 2012-03-25 16:41
This is all happening for the same reason dog's lick themselves:


Technology makes it easy for them. In order to keep them in check (REMEMBER "CHECKS AND BALANCES"?) we need LAWS that make it illegal. We may have to spell it out in very specific language in a Constitutional Amendment.
+4 # cordleycoit 2012-03-25 20:04
It is in the DNA of politicians to spy just a little more on their constituents until they have a police state and then they wonder why the politician is treated like road kill. They need the demographics to fool you. Don't be fooled, Occupy.
-4 # HJ7 2012-03-26 19:31
If everyone had their DNA collected at birth and entered in a central data base, violent crime would plummet. Only the criminals would oppose such a system. The rapist would know his identity could by found with the click of a mouse.

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