Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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February 3, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

HOW ABOUT AN INTERNATIONAL DNA DATABASE?....Via Rachel Lucas comes a story in the Independent about James Watson's proposal that a massive DNA database be set up that could identify every man, woman, and child in America and Europe.

The weird thing is that despite my fairly paranoid attitude toward this kind of thing, I'm not entirely sure it would be a bad idea. As Watson says:

"The sacrifice of this particular form of anonymity does not seem an unreasonable price to pay, provided the laws see to a strict and judicious control over access to public data," he said. "It would be harder to be a crook. If you want to make the criminal justice system more fair, what's wrong with it?"

To be sure, that "strict and judicious control" is the potential deal breaker, but suppose that it could be implemented to our satisfaction. Then what?

It's likely that biometrics will become rather common in the future as a way of identifying people, which means that identifying characteristics will be in databases all over the place anyway. In a way, I'd be a lot happier with a centralized database with strict controls than the chaos of commercial databases with this kind of information available to anyone willing to pay for it. And Watson is right: it would help prevent the criminal justice system from harrassing or imprisoning a lot of innocent people.

Still, I dunno. My gut tells me it's a bad idea.

There is, of course, some irony in this proposal too. Watson and his partner Francis Crick deduced the structure of DNA in 1953 partly by filching X-ray diffraction photographs from Rosalind Franklin, something they could hardly have gotten away with if their DNA had been stored in some massive British database at the time. Beware what you wish for.

Kevin Drum 10:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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