Canada's DNA Database: Privacy's last stronghold destroyed

July 21, 2000

Imagine a society where the government had samples of tissue and fluid from the entire community on file and a computerized databank of each individual's DNA profile. Imagine then that not only law enforcement officials, but insurance companies, employers, schools, adoption agencies, and many other organizations could gain access to those files on a "need to know" basis or on a showing that access is "in the public interest." Imagine then that an individual could be turned down for jobs, insurance, adoption, health care, and other social services and benefits on the basis of information contained in her DNA profile, such as genetic disease, heritage, or someone else's subjective idea of a genetic "flaw." Janet C. Hoeffel, "The Dark Side of DNA Profiling: Unreliable Scientific Evidence Meets the Criminal Defendant", 42 Stanford Law Review 465 at 533-34 (1990).

Stop imagining. This is the reality you are being forced into. The Canadian government unveiled this month what it says is the world's most automated and sophisticated DNA database, capable of automatically identifying persons through analysis of minute amounts of blood, semen, or skin cells.

DNA as forensic evidence was first used in Canada in 1988. By 1995 it was amended into the Criminal Code by Parliament that law enforcement officers could take DNA samples from Canadian citizens. If you do the math you will realize that they already have 5 years of DNA samples to put into their database. This amendment was created with the database already in mind. The big goal reached by baby steps.

Two years later in December of 1998 The DNA Identification Act passed into law. By late 1999, the International Association of Police Chiefs, which represents police agencies in 112 countries, urged legislatures around the globe to pass laws requiring DNA samples from anyone arrested on any charge, whether the charge was murder, impaired driving, or shoplifting. The International Association of Police Chiefs was in turn supported by our own Canadian Police Association (CPA) which sent a letter threatening to withdraw their endorsement of the government's gun-control law unless they got what they wanted, which in turn was what the International Association of Police Chiefs wanted. The CPA also threatened to mount a public campaign denouncing the DNA bank as a "hoax." The government needed the support of the public in their belief that the database would be a major crime-fighting tool and contribute to public safety to have the DNA Identification Act passed into law unchallenged. The Reform Party, and some well-known elected officials side with the view of the International Association of Police Chiefs. This is the future they are fighting for.

With blood being taken from every child at birth, and five years of legislated DNA collection already behind them, just how long will it take before the entire population is catalogued by the Canadian government? My guess would be that the task is already completed or nearly so. DNA collection is frighteningly convenient, and less than 1/10 of a pinhead-sized piece of you is required to garner a DNA sample. A piece of hair, a drop a blood, a flake of dead skin... in fact, machines which can suck a DNA sample off of you from a distance are already available. The technology to take DNA from a fingerprint is close to being perfected.

Also surprising is the fact that DNA databanks are already widely prevalent in other parts of the world; The United States, Germany, Britain, Norway, Finland, Belgium, and Denmark, just to note a few.

In the United States, the International Association of Police Chiefs has also asked the U.S Congress to consider requiring DNA samples from anyone arrested. Rudolph Giuliani, New York City's mayor supports this requirement and is asking to take it one step further. Mr. Giuliani has requested that the state legislature require DNA samples from every newborn baby!

In Britain and Scotland already, there is a program of genetic sampling of people charged with any offence, including routine traffic violations. On September 1 1999, a law in Louisiana took effect that required DNA to be taken from people arrested, but not necessarily convicted, of a violent crime.

Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Clearly, the International Association of Police Chiefs mandate is the construction of an international database to track every individual on the planet. Canada is already negotiating with other nations that possess DNA databanks to set up a system whereby genetic information can be exchanged.

One question to ask is: Why are we expected to trust elected officials and law enforcement with this type of information. The information which is the genetic code of our being. When the future they are fighting for is to make us individuals considered 'guilty' at birth. Not to be given the same benefit of the doubt we are supposed to grant them.

Now, I am not saying that the databank is wholly a bad idea. It has a lot of good premises. DNA evidence has been proven effective in past cases. I have no problem with the fact that 'violent' (and violent needs a very clear definition) criminals should have their DNA taken. My worry is that present evidence points to these first steps as only the beginning of global oppression. The Canadian Police Association, the Reform Party and others want us to become like Scotland and Britain.

In his annual report, Canada's Privacy Commissioner, Bruce Phillips, warns us of the danger this database poses. "Unique personal identifiers and powerful technologies may appear to solve immediate administrative problems but they pose long-term threats to individuals' privacy, a fundamental value in a democratic society".

"The greatest danger of a forensic DNA data bank is its potential to engulf a significant part of the population and become a genetic population register. Recovering abducted children, assisting adults with amnesia, providing security for Alzheimer's patients: all could be offered as justification for extending genetic sampling--and would blur the line between forensic and non-forensic uses."

Categorical discrimination based on genetic make-up is a realistic concern. As our understanding of the human genome improves the danger becomes greater. "This child has the criminal gene (or the gay gene), write'em off." Genetic discrimination, it's the next great frontier. Our government has already stated that samples will be kept permanently on file so that they can be processed again once more advanced technology becomes available.

You may say to yourself, "Go ahead, take my DNA, I have nothing to hide," but the premise that justice supposedly stands on is that we are all 'Innocent until proven guilty.' You shouldn't have to defend yourself when you are not accused of a crime. You shouldn't have to be concerned that you may be implicated in a crime simply based on where you happen to leave a DNA trail. Which just so happens to be *everywhere* you go. Credit Cards and cellular telephones are mere toys of Big Brother compared to DNA tracking.

What can you do to stop this? Nothing. You can kick and scream and write your MP and your Prime Minister, but the fact is, the deed has been done and it's full steam ahead. 1984 by 2004.

The implications of this database being used for non-forensic purposes conjures up scary images of an Orwellian nightmare where everyone's DNA exists to serve the controlling elect, just as barcodes would a grocery store owner. And you thought Nazi Germany was a thing of the past...