Editorial | In DNA we trust

If we’re wary about letting Google keep our credit card numbers, why would we risk giving the state our biological blueprint?

With all the personal information we entrust to private companies and public agencies, it’s something of a paradox that resistance to DNA registries remains so staunch despite their apparent benefits when it comes to solving crimes and – possibly more importantly – proving people’s innocence.

Whether it’s pictures of our children on Facebook, our Google search patterns or our supermarket purchasing habits, we more than willingly give up information about ourselves to private companies under the pretext of making our lives easier. In essence, though, the information we volunteer is used by companies to create our digital profiles and, in the end, use them to earn money.

When it comes to registering citizens’ personal data, no-one outdoes Denmark. Here, personal records ranging from tax information to library withdrawals are recorded using your CPR number. According to the office that manages the CPR database, the registry contains “fundamental information about every resident in Denmark”.

Now, following two recent stabbing deaths (one in Copenhagen, the other in the suburb of Virum), as well as the Funen sexual attacks on two young girls apparently carried out by the same man, many are now beginning to ask whether that “fundamental” information should now also include our DNA.

The arguments for and against are well-worn paths. Keeping DNA records would allow us to clear up crimes quickly and possibly even prevent a criminal from committing a second offence before the police have a chance to use traditional investigative methods to find the suspect.

The counter-argument is that while the intent may be benign, placing something as fundamental as our genetic blueprint into someone else’s hands could lead to its misuse. And with the pace of technological development, identity theft could take on a horrid new dimension should our DNA be hacked from official databases.

While both camps have strong arguments in support of their position, it’s worth questioning whether DNA registries are ultimately necessary. The recent spate of as-yet-unsolved crimes aside, crime clearance rates in Denmark, particularly for murder and other forms of gross bodily harm, are extremely high. And, contrary to how it is portrayed in popular fiction, DNA is not a crime fighter’s silver bullet. It is far from certain that a DNA registery would help solve more crimes than police do today.

Run properly, DNA registries would offer hope that crimes could be solved more quickly, particularly in cases in which it is feared the perpetrator will strike again.

Given the chance for misuse, that seems like an uneven trade-off. Handing over our DNA to the state would just give us one more organisation we need to be suspicious of when they tell us they aren’t being evil.

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