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Nov. 21st, 2012 @ 12:24 pm Surveillance, privacy & crime
Current Mood: crankyconcerned
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Years ago, sixteen year old Marianne Vaatstra was raped and murdered in a small rural town. The crime was never solved and there were no leads. There was a DNA trace, but there was no suspect to match the trace to.
A few weeks ago, it was decided that every male who lived within a certain radius from where she was found, would be asked to give up a DNA sample. People in the neighbourhood don't move often, and families tend to stick together there -- so by matching the Y-chromosome of the DNA trace with the donated samples, a family member of the perpetrator could possibly be found, giving more leads for further investigation. On Monday, a local farmer was arrested because his sample had a 100% match with the trace.

This is an important case. Not only because we can now hope that this terrible crime will be solved, but also because of the methods used: a large-scale DNA investigation amongst the complete male population of a certain area.
I have a few problems with the current investigation, and the implications for the future.

Donating the DNA sample was voluntary -- but if you refused, the police would come to your house to have a chat with you. There must have been tremendous social pressure on giving up the sample: all these years, people have been suspecting each other, theorising, etcetera. Interestingly, the suspect has donated his DNA voluntarily -- the police never had any reason to have a chat with him. He must have caved in to the pressure. I don't know if he would have given his DNA if the deck would not have been stacked against him in this manner.
While not technically a violation of the principle that you can't be forced to cooperate with your own conviction, the practicality of the situation is very different. (If I were the lawyer defending the suspect, I would go for this angle.)

Also, every man who lived in the area and was within a certain age band at the time of the murder, was, essentially, treated like a suspect. This is, unfortunately, nothing new. Technology has made large-scale surveillance feasible, and heuristics 'tag' people who are deviating from the norm -- however that may be defined. You now draw attention to you by doing something different from your neighbours -- attention that is, in many cases, completely unwarranted. Actively gathering evidence is simply a 'logical' extension of this: people are used to being treated as suspects.

If this case gets solved (and a DNA match is not enough evidence to convict someone in the Netherlands), the call for a national DNA databank will be getting louder and louder. As you may know, I have a big problem with being treated like a suspect -- if I lived near the Vaatstra crime scene, I would have refused to give up my DNA sample.
And 'respectable' folk will say: "But if you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear!" It's an oft-heard 'defense' of ever-increasing incursions on our civic liberties. The argument is invalid and dangerous, as perfectly worded in this article.

In 2008 there was a proposal to create a DNA database with the profiles of every police-person. That way, if their DNA would be found on the scene of the crime, they could quickly match it with the profiles of the police personnel who were authorised to be at the crime scene during the investigation, and discard that particular DNA trace for further investigation. A sound idea -- and surely the police have nothing to hide, right?
One of the police unions interviewed 700 of their members, and a full 80% did not want to be included in such a database. (Link is in Dutch.) Interestingly, the reasons given are exactly the same reasons why you shouldn't want to be included in any DNA database either: scope creep and the security of that information.
So if the police doesn't want to be in the database, why should we? I think you know the answer by now: we shouldn't.

And if the government has nothing to hide, why are they refusing to answer FoI requests about their use of technology for surveillance? (Link is, again, in Dutch.) The information assymmetry between the all-knowing government and the innocent citizen is getting larger and larger. One of the main features of a democracy is that the citizens can monitor the work of their government, to keep them honest. If the government doesn't want to answer these questions pertaining their surveillance, are they hiding something?
It seems to me that our government is being dishonest about how it monitors their citizens. If that is the case now, with the technology and information available to it right now, is it reasonable to expect the government to suddenly become honest when your DNA is stored in a national database?

I don't think so.
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Date:December 3rd, 2012 02:42 pm (UTC)
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I caught a conversation at DWDD about this, where one man tried to explain why DNA databanks aren't necessarily a good idea. He was asked for the most extreme example of it going wrong and he referred (quite consciously and carefully) to Nazis. Naturally, everybody else scoffed at that, since using Nazis=argument lost.
However, I disagreed. Relatively a lot of Jews were caught in the Netherlands, because we had an excellent adminstration and archive. It is an incredibly clear example of what the worst that can happen when gathering data on your population, and it should not be forgotten.
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Date:December 3rd, 2012 06:05 pm (UTC)
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You are right. Many people don't take the Nazi-argument seriously because of course there won't be any right-extremist government anymore, right? But it is a real danger, and the information asymmetry between citizens and the government is a worrying trend that will facilitate many unsavory practices.
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