Any Black Sheep in the Family?

by MaxPower

Let us say you commit a crime, a random crime with no discernable motivation. You commit the crime away from your home and place of work and leave no incriminating evidence. You are not caught on camera and there are no witnesses. You may have left fingerprints, but you aren’t worried. You have never been fingerprinted before and your prints are not on file anywhere. It is, in essence, the perfect crime. Without any sort of leads or suspected motivations, police are usually at a complete loss and the crime will go unsolved.

Recently, however, things in the UK have taken a spooky Big Brotherish turn. The UK is not as paranoid as the US is right now, but people in the UK have grown used to smaller amounts of ‘public privacy’. CCTV cameras guard almost every street corner in London and even in small towns across England. People were immunized against feelings of a loss of privacy in public places in order to better fight the terrorist threat England faced for many years. However, even for England, a recent crime investigation has reached another level of intrusion.

A man in England was recently arrested for a crime that he did commit. He threw a brick one night, while drunk, from a bridge on to a highway. The driver of the car he hit was killed. One can see the difficulty that police would have had in solving this crime traditionally. There was no motivation, it was completely random and there were no eyewitnesses. There was, however, trace genetic evidence left on the brick. The man apparently cut himself before he threw the brick thus leaving some blood on the brick. Even after it had been thrown off the bridge and smashed into the car killing the driver, forensic experts were able to get a sample from this man’s DNA. Normally, even that would not help police; you need a suspect before you can compare DNA. Police in this case had nothing. Well, not quite nothing, they had the National DNA Database which was established in 1995 in the UK to fight crime. It is a database of 2.3 million genetic profiles representing 5% of the population of the UK. These genetic samples have been collected over the past nine years from people charged with a crime. Therefore, if someone has committed a crime, the authorities have a sample of their DNA and thus they can link that person to any DNA left at the scene of a crime. But the man in question had never committed a crime. His brother had committed a crime.

Police, at a loss and with no leads ran the DNA sample through the database. No match. They then ran the DNA through the database again asking the database to isolate any DNA on file with 11 or more DNA markers in common out of 20, which apparently demonstrates a blood relation. The man’s brother had committed a crime in the past nine years and had been tagged. The police then searched the brother’s files and found out where his relatives lived, went and tested them and found their match. The man was caught because his brother had committed a crime. Beyond that, currently not only are convicted criminals being swabbed for DNA, anyone who is arrested at all is being swabbed even if they are later exonerated.

Obviously, on the surface this is a good thing. The man was brought to justice for third degree murder and rightly so. The Economist notes that using this DNA technique conviction rates are around 48% for burglary where DNA is found versus 14% where DNA is not found. So this is just another useful tool in the forensic investigator’s tool kit right? Well there are some ominous undertones here. If in nine years, the UK has got 5% of the population’s DNA on file, in another ten years I would expect this number to grow exponentially. Not only are you going to be on the file if you are arrested or convicted of a crime, but you will be “virtually” on file if any of your blood relatives have at any point in time been arrested or convicted of anything.

This should only worry about people who are planning on committing crimes though, correct? Well it doesn’t take too much paranoia to imagine a situation where a couple flakes of skin or strands of hair picked up and ran through a massive computer DNA database could incriminate you or your family for any range of activities that the government of the day deems inappropriate. If you have one black sheep in the family your entire set of blood relations are in essence held on a permanent file. And that is just now, in fifty years I can see people being arrested because of a DNA database that has a grandparent’s DNA on file because that grandparent stole a chocolate bar in twenty aught four.

  • Any Black Sheep in the Family?
  • by MaxPower
  • Published on May 1st, 2004

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