May 1, 2010

Resolved: Compulsory inclusion of non-felons' DNA in any government database is unjust.

The NFL national tournament Lincoln-Douglas debate topic for 2010 has been released:
Resolved: Compulsory inclusion of non-felons' DNA in any government database is unjust.
A couple obvious themes present themselves immediately. Compulsory inclusion might be unjust for violating the right to privacy; DNA contains information about genetic conditions that are immensely personal. Along similar lines, such information is potentially useful for discrimination (a present-day possibility) or identity theft (imagine a future with biometric, DNA-based national IDs), or might lead to "false positives" due to an overly optimistic reliance (a "CSI effect" of sorts) on DNA evidence, which, although a gold standard of positive identification, isn't perfect. Then there's the tyranny consideration, another step toward the slippery slope to an Orwellian nightmare.

On the other hand, the State's security concerns and desire to avoid falsely identifying non-felons might be abetted by a database that clearly distinguishes felon from non. Furthermore, a DNA database could speed up the search to identify criminals--after all, every felon was once a non-felon.

These are just a few initial, scattered thoughts on the subject. As always, more analysis, links and evidence are on the way, and your comments and questions help fuel the discussion.

Added: The inimitable Radley Balko responds to a call for a national database.

Criminal justice interests aren't the only ones worth considering. In Texas, academic researchers collected mitochondrial DNA samples in a secret database. It's important to note that mitochondrial DNA can't be traced to individuals, but one could easily imagine a public health initiative to gather nuclear DNA.

Added 5/2 The ACLU's Tania Simoncelli offers some arguments in favor of the resolution.

Added 6/7: And there's always the possibility of embarrassing errors.


SERGIO said...

This topic seems generally interesting, one could potentially argue that DNA is just like any requisite of the state, and asking to provide it so, is under the current mandates of security, therefore it will be just like a drivers liscence. Did they release this at like 7:00? I stayed up and wasn't there at one or two or three. I checked at 8. And it was there.

Jim Anderson said...

Sergio, I don't know when it posted; I'm always a little behind, because I operate on Pacific time.

Regarding the "just like a driver's license" argument, I can see how that might work: not only would the State demand your eye and hair color and a photograph, but a snippet of your DNA to verify the match.

However, there's the matter of choice. You don't legally or compulsorily have to get a driver's license (although you practically have to). However, in this resolution, being made part of a DNA database isn't a matter of choice or consent. It's compulsory.

How it might work: you're arrested as part of an investigation. Your DNA is taken and catalogued. Hours later, you're cleared and released--but your DNA is still stored in that database, whether you want it or not.

(I'm not sure how "temporary inclusion" plays into this debate, yet.)

SERGIO said...

Then it could be like the census, it is necessary for proper maintenance of the state, and therefore needs to be used. On top of that, it just boils down to privacy and choice. One could argue Kantian Good Will couldn't they?

Plus, taking a snippet of the DNA is a practical and realistic application, taking the whole thing, is not. So yeah, take a part that is not too long, and you preserve privacy. This is because it was violated in the first place, and that was not seen as generally bad. All privacy means no contact. When you get a drivers liscence, which you are compelled to give, or give your age on the census (do you, well, for the purposes here, lets assume that) then you are losing privacy. Them infringing on things that should not matter to you, like a picture or other things, is not unjust, because people see your face, they notice what you look like. In otehr words, is looking at my friend unjust?

Jim Anderson said...

I think that leads to some important questions for the Negative.

1. What is the state's compelling interest in non-felons' DNA?
2. Does the resolution require a complete DNA sample?
3. Is the database effectively permanent?

And, for both sides...

4. What is the inviolable boundary of personal privacy?
5. What is the State's role in collecting and maintaining records of non-felons? What material is already legitimately collected? If DNA is different in principle, why?

Anonymous said...

One word: biopower. This could be a very fun topic.

ASauce said...

Great topic, I'm certainly looking forward to debating this at nats.
However, is there not a distinction between "compulsory inclusion" and "compulsory collection", if the topic were to be worded as the latter? The topic could be interpreted as simply using the DNA samples which the government currently possesses (such as from crime scenes) and being compelled to include those within a database rather than the government specifically going out and collecting DNA, could it not?

Jim Anderson said...

ASauce, you can (and should) definitely draw a distinction between inclusion and collection. The former is the scenario I describe above, where, even if you're cleared of felonious activity, your DNA is kept in the database.

The latter prospect--an aggressive attempt by a government to catalogue DNA--is where the slippery slope leads.

(I'll also add a link above, though, that shows that the criminal justice system isn't the only institution interested in cataloguing DNA.)

BixbyRA said...

Anonymous, no biopower at nats. Stick to traditional philosophies.

Richard said...

On the Jim's point about how it might be collected when charged with a crime.
Aren't felons convicted? So if that is the definition, then it probably doesn't apply on that short-term timespan.
it's still a good point of how long is the DNA kept for

Anonymous said...

First few thoughts on the topic, I'm really leaning towards the neg. Yes, there are many practical reasons to affirm, but I'm really struggling to see the philosophical basis on the aff. Any arguments I'm seeing sound more like constitutional discussion, does the fourth amendment provide for such privacy, etc., which I don't think has a very sound base.

That leads me to another question, is the resolution assumed to be about the United States, or governments in general? My personal preference would be to argue this in general because then the focus can be on the government's relation to the individual, which steer the debate away from practicality matters alone or US debate.

Because of that, I'm leaning towards something like liberty, dignity, etc. for the aff and a social contract theory on the neg.

This topic really won't be much different than immunizations. Sad. :(

Kurtis said...

ASause, I think that you are absolutely right with that distinction. I personally think that anyone who takes the route of "compulsory inclusion means compulsory collection" is dead wrong. The resolution seems to be an "after the fact" type of question. Meaning, just as you said, the government already has samples collected from felons and those who chose to give up a sample, so the questions becomes what do they do with all that stuff after that? The res says that they would be obligated to store it into a database. Don't non-felons realize they have the power to just say no? I think that is the threshold to the database being unjust or not because non-felons still have the right to refuse to give up a sample of their DNA.

To the Anon above me, seeing as the res says "any government," and doesn't stipulate just the US government, I think that the negative could get away with proving DNA databases in some country like India have been beneficial, ergo just, and win the round. We are not confined to the US on this one which sucks because with the ridiculous number of government run databases that have DNA records in them, the research burden is killer.

Anonymous said...

Question: does non-felons mean criminals who have not committed a felonious crime but have committed a crime, or everyone who is not a felon?

Jim Anderson said...

First Anonymous, the resolution doesn't specify any particular government; in a round, if you want to try to limit the debate to the United States, you'd better offer good reasons for doing so.

Second Anonymous, anyone who has not committed a felony is a non-felon. That includes criminals who've committed only misdemeanors as well as totally innocent people.

I'll respond to some other observations later today, when I have more time.

Anonymous said...

I've been wondering why the resolution specifies "inclusion". It seems to me that the inclusion part of the process is kind of benign, while the use of the DNA database and the collection are where violations might occur. What do you think are some of the issues specific to putting the DNA into the database? (Assuming that we don't know the intended use of the database or the means by which it was collected)

Jim Anderson said...

Anonymous, that's an interesting question.

First, it's a bright line. If DNA of a non-felon is included, it's impossible to predict whether someone will use the information for ill--but if it's not included in the database, it cannot be used for ill.

Second, it's a matter of autonomy. If it's my DNA and I've committed no crime, shouldn't I have the say as to whether it's included? Nothing in the resolution prohibits voluntary inclusion; if people really believed that letting the government keep their DNA was a good thing, they could line up to get sampled today.

There might be other reasons, too, but that's all I've got after a night of reading papers.

Anonymous said...

Hey do you have a definition of government databases as containing private info?

Jim Anderson said...

Anonymous, no definition--unless you consider the fact that DNA may contain private medical information (for instance, whether you have a genetic disorder).

the rock said...

Would it be valid to cite the sources that wikipedia has for the definition above?

Jim Anderson said...

the rock, that'd depend on the sources Wikipedia cites. Each should be evaluated on its own merits. Do you have an example of a source that might be dubious?

The Rock said...
this is just an example

Jim Anderson said...

Ah, I see. If I were you, I'd go with the information (and extensive reference links) found here and here. The information is more specific, but also more directly relevant to the resolution.

The Rock said...

what i was looking in specifically was government databases, becuase my friend found a piece of evidence that says that some types of DNa databases do not contain private information
THe mitochondria link that you put also would be disproved by it
So would it be viable to say in a round that I got the definition of a government database from the sources that WIkipedia lists

Jim Anderson said...

It'd be more accurate to say that the mitochondria link I posted supports the argument that DNA can be collected without necessarily compromising privacy.

The response, for the affirmative, is to argue that we're only concerned with nuclear DNA, which is necessary for identification purposes, and not for non-controversial uses, in the form of a resolutional analysis. (After all, most folks who speak of DNA mean nuclear DNA.)

And, lastly, don't say "according to the sources listed by Wikipedia," if that's what you mean. Find the specific link that supports the claim or definition you're making; if you can't find one, send me an email and I'll see how I can help.

ZT said...

When I was in Israel earlier this year, there was a big national hubababaloo over a proposal to create a national biometric database, involving fingerprints and facial scans. It's a shame the NFL specified DNA, and excluded the only real life example of a large-scale compulsory database.

Anonymous said...

Do you have any good definitions for the affirmative side:

AHMED said...


AHMED said...

that was SERGIO