A Disappointing Debate – what do you think?

For those of you who may have attended the debate at UCT last week Wednesday, you may share my frustration and disappointment insofar as my adversary failed, in my opinion, to address the issues at hand which were: the societal and ethical implications of a National DNA Database in South Africa. Whilst I commend Ms Naidoo for standing up against police brutality and corruption, this was not the topic of debate for that evening, nor was it in any way relevant to the question of which types of profiles should be held on a DNA database and why.

Poonitha Naidoo, Vanessa Lynch & Carolyn Hancock

Poonitha Naidoo, Vanessa Lynch & Carolyn Hancock

As such,  I believe we lost a valuable opportunity for serious, logical and rational debate over an issue which may have far reaching consequences in South Africa . The problem is, to date, no-one seems to be able to come forward and present an argument against the implementation of a criminal intelligence DNA database, which makes any sense at all.

Whilst I admit that I may be biased in favour of the value of a DNA Database for crime resolution (in conjunction with the vast majority of countries in the world with developed DNA Databases!), I am not unfamiliar nor insensitive to some of the privacy concerns of human rights groups. It must also be noted that the DNA Project concedes that the actual DNA reference sample (as opposed to the DNA profile) should be destroyed once a full DNA profile has been obtained and, that there should be an exit mechanism in place to expunge profiles which have not resulted in a conviction following arrest.

As I see it, there are five areas of concern amongst civil rights activists, which I raised for argument in the debate, namely:

In the first place we must ensure that we differentiate between a DNA sample and a DNA profile. 
The physical sample consists of the bodily substance collected from a crime scene or person; the DNA profile is the digitized information that is stored electronically on the Database. Whilst the sample holds the genetic profile, once a DNA profile has been obtained, the DNA sample can be destroyed, provided that it is not a crime scene sample which is evidence and must be kept in the same way as other crime scene evidence.
Of note is that the DNA markers which make up the digital profile in South Africa, are specifically chosen for forensic use because they do not reveal any details about age, ethnicity, race, appearance or medical conditions. You therefore cannot link a DNA profile to an individual’s medical history nor does it point to genetic disorders or susceptibilities. In fact a mughsot tells you more about the person than a DNA profile; as too does your id number. If then we concede that the physical sample is not retained, but only the digital profile, and if access and use to it is strictly confined, then the intrusion into privacy is not particularly grave, while the societal gains in solving and deterring appalling crimes in South Africa through a criminal intelligence database, are very significant.

Vanessa Lynch debating at UCT last week

Vanessa Lynch debating at UCT last week

My second point was in relation to the way in which a sample is collected. Currently, due to the interpretation of the 1977 Criminal Procedures Act, a registered nurse or medical practitioner has to take a full vial blood to generate a sample for DNA analysis. The draft DNA bill calls for the collection of a simple cheek swab/pin prick by a police officer.  No country in the world mandates that samples be taken by blood or medical personnel – Why? It is exceedingly expensive, dangerous and scientifically unnecessary and it has certainly never been challenged as unconstitutional or invasive. Ms Naidoo perceives this act however as a grave invasion of privacy. But, I argue that the mere act of taking of samples from suspects is a reasonable and  proportionate response to serious crime.

Given that this technology is here to stay, as a crucial means of solving crimes, the question is… who should be on the database and why? It is generally agreed, that convicted offenders and crime scene profiles should be retained. The main argument is then around the retention of such material in cases where a suspect is subsequently acquitted or the charge is discontinued….. which leads us to the next point…

Our contention is that there should exist a retention framework for profiles which do not result in a conviction. In the pivotal case of S vs Marper – The European Courts of Human Right forced a change of policy in England that the holding of a DNA profiles from persons regardless of outcome of arrest was disproportionate – a retention framework was proposed which is still being debated.
 Whilst the value of retained profiles from suspects who were subsequently acquitted has been shown to be considerable, there is no other country which allows a blanket retention policy of such profiles, but a retention framework makes sense.
Significantly, in South Africa, a recently passed law allows searching across all the fingerprint databases – HANIS, E-NATIS and AFIS. If we accept that the fingerprint is a unique identifier, just as the DNA profile is, then we are currently already allowing supposedly ‘innocent’ fingerprints to be searched for the purpose of generating a hit or match. We must remember that the presence of a fingerprint on a database does not constitute a criminal record – it is for reference and comparative purposes only. If a hit is generated then it is considered a LEAD in the investigation – it is not an automatic guilty verdict as many seem to suggest. With the high rate of recidivism in SA, it may be proportionate to consider a retention framework whereby a profile is kept for a specified period (in the draft Bill, 5 years has been proposed) after which, if there is no further arrest during that time, it is automatically expunged.

Perhaps then Civil liberties activists seem mostly opposed to the development of a national database on the grounds that state officials might somehow be able to abuse ordinary citizens by using the data that would be contained in it? The argument that information can be abused pre-supposes that the DNA profiles reveal genetic information which is commercially valuable. This is untrue. It is simply a unique identifier. There is no realistic way I can think of in which a government can abuse a Database nor has any case ever been reported of this occurring. But perhaps some reader out there has different views on this, and if so, I would be interested in hearing them. Moreover, the draft Bill provides for strict safeguards and penalties to ensure that DNA profiles are used only for the purpose related to the detection of crime, the investigation of an offence or the conduct of a prosecution.

If a Database is assiduously maintained and strictly controlled in order to strengthen our Criminal Justice System (CJS) and help our forces of law apprehend and prosecute habitual offenders, then we should support the expansion and development of this crime fighting tool in a country which is being held to ransom by a small minority of criminals.

The last point brings me to duty of the State to protect the public from crime. However, it is recognised that in doing so, the State also needs to protect certain ethical values such as liberty, autonomy, privacy, informed consent and equality. Sometimes these obligations conflict and then a balance must be struck between the right to privacy and the right to safety and security. In appropriate circumstances, some of these rights need to be restricted in the public interest and to protect the rights of others.  Legislation should therefore seek to find an adequate balance between the interests of society and the interests of the individual. If we agree that the purpose of the CJS is to permit everyone to go about their daily lives without fear of harm to person or property, then surely it is in everyone’s interest that serious crime should be properly investigated and prosecuted.  As one of the most important obligations of the state is to protect the rights of its citizens, a DNA Database does this and this more than makes up for any minor privacy rights violated by mandatory DNA databasing. In other words, freedom of action has to be restricted in appropriate circumstances – i.e. the response of the state to take action to prevent people from killing or harming one another will inevitably involve some restriction of freedom of action. Laws by their very nature do this (restrict freedom of action) but are in place to ensure that the greater good is achieved.

My final point on the issue is a Utilitarian  one – in other words, what is the VALUE of the science? 
In a country which has one of the highest crime rates,  lowest conviction rates and highest rate of recidivism in the world- the value of the science, in this case, the DNA database,  is very, very high.
So, let us not sacrifice the good for the perfect – if we put proper safeguards in place and maximise the full potential of this powerful investigative tool, we will be doing a good thing – which surely is an aim worthy of pursuit?

What do you think?


One Response to “A Disappointing Debate – what do you think?”

  1. Anton says:

    I also found it disappointing. Ms Naidoo’s tactic seems to be to sow fear, uncertainty and doubt. Her main argument was that the police can’t be trusted. She made vague references to torture by the SAPS, the targeting of Muslims in the US, the collection of DNA from discarded paper cups, the use of familial DNA etc. This all seemed to be to distract the audience from the real debate. I don’t see how this differs from the tools police already have at their disposal. We trust them with fingerprints, breathalyzers, speed radars etc. A DNA fingerprint is just another tool.

    Also surprising was the lack of understanding of the technology from people in the audience. People seem to be genuinely afraid of what it can be used for. It looks like there is a lot public education still to be done.