Sunday, April 05, 2009

A rough cut of DNA

It's 10 o'clock on Sunday night and the DNA Rape Bill submissions are due in to the J&E select committee first thing Monday morning. While my concerns about the Bill remain unabated, I'm just not up to pulling an all nighter on this thing.

I have had only the most cursory of readings of it (hey, there's the Tokyo phonebook-sized Auckland Governance Report as well. According to the Nats, a decision on the Greater Auckland democratic structure is to made in the next week. According to Rodney Hide, deliberation will be somewhat longer. What's up with that?).

But back to the DNA thing. One of my source materials was going to be Patrick Gower's report in the Herald:
Details and cost estimates remain vague but the Weekend Herald has learned that in its first year the law change is expected to add a further 25,000-27,000 DNA profiles to the national databank, which is held by Environmental Science and Research on behalf of the police.
The ESR is going to make a good clip of cash out of this. How much does each DNA test cost? Is this the same ESR who have been pushing for random drug tests in the workplace as well? Tests that the ESR would perform to their profit? Just how thin is the line between the police database and the private practise stuff?
Even allowing for a gradual drop-off in numbers as police catch repeat offenders, the databank is likely to at least double within five years from 90,000 to 180,000 profiles - about 4 per cent of all New Zealanders...

The Government wants to extend the law to cover all imprisonable offences by the end of 2011. It predicts the full law change will catch an extra 445 criminals each year, mainly for high-volume crimes such as burglary.
If this passes into law, it would be interesting to revisit these statistical arguments in favour after 2011, once the whole enchilada is served. For the price of every arrestee's DNA on record, this is the best case scenario for why it is being done. Not impressed. Back to Gower's story:

Meanwhile, Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff has added her voice to the warnings against passing the bill in its current form. In a letter to Mr Power obtained by the Weekend Herald, she urges the Government to appoint an independent committee to oversee the expanded databank and reassure the public it will not be misused.

In a separate letter she also questions the need to take DNA samples for all imprisonable crimes, which would cover low-level offences such as littering and lighting bonfires.

Treasury officials have dismissed the costings for the scheme as inadequate and Labour claims it will take an extra $20 million a year to pay for DNA collection and testing, plus extra prosecutions and prison beds.

In short, I think that the argument in favour of expansion is very weak. The price is too high. Correspondence from Simon Power, while gratefully received, still fails to sell it to me:

Power Dna

We're looking at a pool of 8,000 unsolved DNA crime scene samples. These do not all represent damning evidence. At very best it is corroborative evidence. It places the DNA owner to the location, not the crime. Any two-bit law criminal student could tell you that. Oversell. Just how many unsolved crimes have been resolved under the existing DNA database?

I appreciate the wording of this part especially: "The DNA profile currently used by ESR is only a very small portion of the individual's total DNA profile and can only be deciphered by a select group of specialist scientists. The only specific personal information that can be deuced from the sequence of numbers that makes up the DNA profile is whether the person is male or female."

This black box process of DNA databasing is not easy to determine from a quick cruise through the ESR's website and the existing Bodily Samples Act. What method of recording is it? Can familial searches be made with it? How many alleles do ESR match, etc. Yeah, I should have emailed off to the ESR to get more detail on the process, but I never got around to it (Neither did the MSM, so I don't feel bad).

I understand how fingerprinting works. I can replicate them, easy as a leaky biro. While DNA reading is not quite within layperson's reach at present, we must put our trust in the ESR. An ESR who are not above colluding with the police, if the insinuations in this Media7 slot are to be believed (On an M7 tangent, Simon Pound's lesson last week on the OIA is a classic).

A thought occurs. Say an ESR worker got a bit slappy in town one Friday night off duty and ended up getting arrested for, let's say, causing a public disturbance. Their DNA would end up getting sampled by their employer. How would the ESR respond if one of their staff got pinged on a matter unrelated to their work? Could they, would they ignore it? Employment lawyers would have a field day.

And then there's the broader worries, wonderfully outlined in this DNA database debate over at the Economist. Like the voting for this debate, my opinion on the Bodily Samples Amendment Bill has not changed considerably over time. The proposed expansion of the DNA database is an unwarranted, under-budgeted, over-promised bit of law that projectile vomits over the Bill of Rights Act.