The Latest In The 'Collect It All' Collection: An Entire Nation's DNA

from the adding-more-hay dept

“Collect it all”: for the NSA, it is communications data; for Kenya, it is information about every Wi-Fi user and device. For Kuwait, as Yahoo News reports, it’s everyone’s DNA:

Kuwait’s parliament, reacting to a suicide bombing last week that killed 26 people, adopted a law Wednesday requiring mandatory DNA testing on all the country’s citizens and foreign residents.

The legislation, requested by the government to help security agencies make quicker arrests in criminal cases, calls on the interior ministry to establish a database on all 1.3 million citizens and 2.9 million foreign residents.

Kuwait seems to be pretty serious about implementing this scheme. Refuse to give samples? That will cost you $33,000 and a year in jail. Try to pass off someone else’s DNA as your own? Make that seven years in jail. Setting up the DNA database won’t be cheap, but an extra $400 million has been allocated by Kuwait’s parliament:

“We have approved the DNA testing law and approved the additional funding. We are prepared to approve anything needed to boost security measures in the country,” independent MP Jamal al-Omar said.

Following the high death toll in the suicide bombing, there is a natural desire to do something to stop it happening again, and to help catch those behind it. But the move to collect everyone’s DNA seems to be born mostly from an opportunistic government desire to exploit tragic events to bring in extreme laws without much resistance.

After all, how exactly will having everyone’s DNA in a database prevent future suicide bombings? Yes, it might help with the rapid identification of the bomber(s) and victims. That’s useful, but hardly justifies an unprecedented collection of everyone’s DNA. And it may help resolve other crimes, particularly rape, which will be welcomed by the victims. But if DNA becomes a standard tool in everyday criminal cases, having everyone’s DNA may actually hinder investigations because of false positives. We are all shedding DNA everywhere we go, so the presence of somebody’s genetic material at the scene of a crime probably means nothing (and could even be an attempt to frame someone, which becomes much easier.) But it will require the police to eliminate all those genetic bystanders, which is likely to slow down the investigation.

In this respect, it’s the classic needle-in-a-haystack data problem, but applied to the world of genomes. Just as adding more hay does not help you find those proverbial needles, so increasing the size of the DNA database to encompass the entire population does not generally make it easier to find the perpetrator of a crime. In fact, smaller, more selective DNA databases are more sensible, just as targeted surveillance is more effective. With luck, Kuwait’s future discovery of this fact, and its failure to draw much benefit from this massive intrusion into the most personal sphere of all — the genome — will make other governments think twice before following suit.

Well, I can dream, can’t I?

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Comments on “The Latest In The 'Collect It All' Collection: An Entire Nation's DNA”

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Anonymous Coward says:


They are just providing their law enforcement and security agencies with the tools they need – while respecting individual rights and liberties. I think that they got the balance between security and liberty right. After the next terrorist attack do you want to explain why the state shouldn’t be installing biotech in our heads at birth? I thought not.

Anonymous Coward says:

DNA collection has been going on for years

From what I have been told by a professional in the Australian healthcare industry, all newborns for a considerable time now have had their DNA sent to a central body (taken from their umbilical cord). I don’t know about home births, but the comment was certainly made about all hospital births. The indications are that this period is over 20 years – but I may be mistaken about that figure, it may be considerably longer.

There is much that is done automatically here without any of us being the wiser in relation to dna sampling or other biometric sampling.

My own retinal pattern has been collected by the DOJ Victoria since I have had to, on a couple of occasions, enter high security prison environments in the course of business.

To work for Victoria Police, one has to have one’s fingerprints scanned for Police checks. This is a part of the business process of working with them.

Paul Renault (profile) says:

Re: DNA collection has been going on for years

“…all newborns for a considerable time now have had their DNA sent to a central body…”

Uh, no?

According to the information sheet given to parents by the Newborn Screening Program, of the Department of Clinical Biochemistry, Princess Margaret Hospital for Children in Western Australia: “The newborn screening laboratory is located at Princess Margaret Hospital for Children. When testing is completed, the cards are stored securely [at the hospital] for two years and then destroyed.” [My clarification added.]

The cards are called Guthrie cards, and are used to collect blood from the newborn’s heel. “Laboratories test the specimens for a variety of rare conditions, including phenylketonuria, congenital hypothyroidism and cystic fibrosis.”
Note the URL…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: DNA collection has been going on for years

According to the information sheet given to parents by the Newborn Screening Program…

What may be in the information sheet does NOT have to tell the whole story of who else gets samples, etc.

Remember this is our various state and federal governmental bodies we are dealing with here. I have worked for various state and federal affiliated organisations over many years and what one may say can be completely different to what is actually going on in another organisation. Information flows where it will and quite often it is unbeknownst to anyone about who gets what.

Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

Re: Re: DNA collection has been going on for years

“The newborn screening laboratory is located at Princess Margaret Hospital for Children. When testing is completed, the cards are stored securely [at the hospital] for two years and then destroyed.”

There’s an ugly little half-truth associated with that quote: perhaps the card is destroyed, but you just point me to where it says the data resulting from the screening are destroyed.

See, for DNA matching, the authorities only need the DNA profile data. They don’t give a flying f**k about the Guthrie card, once the profile has been extracted.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

When it comes to building haystacks, technology ensures that the haystack will grow faster than the ability to fully analyse it. The people, while individually do not own the most powerful system, they do in aggregate own much more computing power than the governments of the world, and this means that they can create data faster than it can be analysed. Keeping historical data just makes the problem worse for the governments.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re:

My bigger worry is that data science will eventually solve the needle in the haystack problem, making it completely feasible.

There’s an “old” (1990s?) quote that says (paraphrased), “The single most incredible advance in computer programming is the ongoing ability to negate Moore’s Law. No matter how fast processors get, modern coders are well equipped to ensure you need to buy a new box every few years in order to do the same thing today as what you did last year on an inferior box.”

I think the haystack problem is fundamental. Just because you’ve thrown the entire world’s data at the problem, doesn’t mean you’ll notice the answer as you motor on past it still looking for what you shouldn’t have bothered to look for. “Stupid is as stupid does, ma’am.”

“Brute force” is the slowest and silliest way of solving problems.

ArneBab (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

You sent me on a Quest ☺
I happily return with the fruits of that quest:

“The hope is that the progress in hardware will cure all software ills. However, a critical observer may observe that software manages to outgrow hardware in size and sluggishness.” — Martin Reiser in Oberon Systems 1991¹ (also known as Wirth’s law since February 1995,⁰ started being called Page’s Law in 2009 by Sergey Brin)

“The speed of software halves every 18 months.” — Gates Law²

“Software efficiency halves every 18 months, compensating Moore’s law.” — May’s Law (David May)³

⁰: Niklaus Wirth (February 1995). “A Plea for Lean Software”. Computer 28 (2): pp. 64–68. doi:10.1109/2.348001. Retrieved 2007-01-13.
¹: Reiser, Martin (1991). The Oberon System User Guide and Programmer’s Manual. ACM Press. ISBN 0-201-54422-9.
²: Gates’ law, from the Jargon Lexicon, in the Jargon File (version 4.4.7).
³: Eadline, Douglas. “May’s Law and Parallel Software”. Linux Magazine. Retrieved 9 May 2011.

All found on Wikipedia:'s_law

So, to make the confusion complete, shall we call your version the Law of Oberon, king of fairies who are well versed in trickery to trap humans in a feast from which they return decades later without having changed (just as slow as before)? ☺

ArneBab (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

And we can go further back:

“It is a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.” — William Stanley Jevons, 1865 in the book The Coal Question (Jevons Paradox), source: (page 11, VIII.3)

So Moore’s law is countered by Jevons Paradox, which celebrates its 150th birthday this year.

Klaus says:

Re: Balderdash

I know you’re joking (humour, a difficult concept), but I have a genuine fear that they may actually try this.

The film GATACA was based on this, where in the near-future they get to the point where your position in society is guaranteed prior to birth, by the quality of your DNA, and that affluent parents could give their offspring a leg up by enhancing/suppressing known genomic traits.

I heard a while back (10+ years ago) that some insurance companies were already asking policy holders whether they had ever had a DNA sequence done on them, and whether they could access their results, and that some people had been denied health cover. Sorry but I don’t have a link, it was on BBC radio.

Scary stuff.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Balderdash

Lets hope nobody gets around to cobble together such a theory and present this to people in power (and weak in mind).

If you have enough data you can make up any statistic you want.
“See, everyone who rolled through a red light has protein xyz on marker 987. Lets put all of ’em pre-emptively into jail”
“Jails are full and we don’t want those ones to create new offenders, so off with em.”

Bill says:

Let the heads roll

Will heads role once this is done and someone decides to make other use of the DNA evidence they have in hand? How many wives will be executed when their husbands learn that their sons and/or daughters aren’t theirs? How many sons will be disinherited? How many daughters will be outcast, disinherited, or executed for “crimes” their mothers committed?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Let the heads roll

Collecting for a specific purpose, a soft purpose initially, a purpose that gets a greenlight, guarantees that the infrustructure supporting it gets built, guarantees a strong “no going back without loses” feeling/scenario…….and, THEN ……you change the purpose……..again, then again aaaaaand again…….acumalating each purpose

Purposes that if first initially proposed, would have multitudes of folks telling them not to hit themselves on the door on their way out

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Bulldoze their family’s house? Since that clearly worked perfectly and totally does not violate the Geneva Convention. It definitely does not do the work of recruiting for your foes.

Whatever deterrent value certainly won’t be turned into an incentive as foes reward your victims with superior housing.

tqk (profile) says:

What's wrong with collecting DNA samples?

The cop shows on tv (when I watched tv) often point(ed) out that providing a sample will enable them to rule you out of having comitted a crime they’re investigating. That’s good, yes? What’s wrong with that? Why wouldn’t I want every citizen’s DNA on file (assuming it’s secured/encrypted adequately)?

I’m not saying it’s a smart thing to do, nor that it would be worth the money to do it. I’m just saying I can’t see what’s wrong with doing it, civil-liberties-wise. Why’s it not equivalent to a driver’s licence in the grand scheme of things?

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Two words: False positives.

If the police already have your info on file, then it’s entirely possible that you might come up as a match, regardless of your involvement or location at the time of the crime, and get to enjoy all the fun that follows until you can clear your name.

If they have to ask to get a particular piece of data, in this case DNA, then the default assumption is that you’re innocent, and you’re only going to be asked to provide information if they have other evidence indicating that you are, or might be guilty, drastically decreasing the chances for ‘mistakes’.

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