SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA — Cotton farmers. Mechanics. Weekend rugby players. In the little Australian town of Wee Waa this week, they've all been letting police officers rub a swab against the inside of their cheek.
It takes only a few minutes. It seems harmless. But all the men of Wee Waa have been giving DNA samples in an exercise police hope will lead to the solving of a gruesome crime - the assault and rape of a 91-year-old woman some 18 months ago.
While such DNA dragnets are the cutting edge of sleuthing, critics say that the spread of DNA data banks in Australia, the US, and Britain are an Orwellian slippery slope. In the name of solving violent crimes, people are sacrificing privacy by giving police - and perhaps insurance companies and employers - a genetic profile of themselves, they argue.
Faced with only a few traces of DNA left behind by the rapist, police have asked every man 18 to 45 years old in the New South Wales town (population 2,400) to volunteer to submit genetic samples to help narrow the search for a suspect. "We've had very few people refuse," says Paul Mayger, the Sydney homicide detective leading the testing.
But Chris Puplick, the privacy commissioner of the state of New South Wales, calls it a publicity stunt meant to pressure politicians to approve police plans for a DNA data bank in the state and keep it free of independent oversight. "They won't catch anybody out of this," he says. "Just about everybody admits the person is likely to have left town." An agricultural community, Wee Waa each year sees its share of itinerant workers.
But what police have chosen to do here is a rare, but increasingly common, tactic for investigating crimes.
It was first used in Europe and in Britain, which this month marked the fifth anniversary of a national DNA data bank. In the US it's called DNA "dragnetting," and is one of the most important issues facing the American legal system, says Christopher Asplen, executive director of the US Department of Justice's National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence.
The commission, which is compiling recommendations on issues involving DNA testing for the attorney general, has not taken a stance on dragnetting of the kind performed in Wee Waa, Mr. Asplen says. "It's one of the issues that will have to filter its way through the court system," he says.
The FBI opened a national DNA database in October 1998, and all 50 states now require certain convicted felons to give DNA samples to be kept in data banks linked to the FBI's. Most states require only those convicted of violent crimes to give DNA samples. But Louisiana already requires anyone arrested to give a sample, and New York state recently expanded testing provisions to include nonviolent cases.
Police argue the growing database will help solve thousands of crimes. Violent offenders rarely commit them only once. But dragnetting takes that a step further to include taking samples from everyone within a certain area, or even, in some cases, of people fitting a certain profile.
According to Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union, DNA databases in themselves represent a threat to privacy. But dragnetting imposes that threat on innocent civilians. When police "ask for data - and DNA is much more than the average piece of data - it's hard to resist," says Mr. Steinhardt.
Courts in the US have so far rejected civil libertarians' arguments. They have also, according to Harold Krent, a professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law who has represented inmates refusing to give DNA samples, found there is no good reason for felons to not give a sample.
What motivated some of his clients, Mr. Krent says, was the fear of police planting DNA evidence. But even people with less conspiratorial fears should be worried. "What happens to those samples? Are they given to other law-enforcement agencies? Are they given to insurance companies?" Krent says. "DNA can unlock so many private things about so many of us."
In Wee Waa, where testing was wrapping up yesterday, police have pledged to destroy all samples once the men who gave them are cleared. But, says Puplick, getting rid of them won't guarantee related paperwork isn't filed away. "If you actually think they are going to destroy the list of who did not take the test, then you've got to have rocks in your head," he says.
That argument doesn't register in Wee Waa, where this year's cotton harvest is just getting under way. To them, what is an ethical debate elsewhere is a practical duty. June Hamilton, who runs a cotton and cattle farm in Wee Waa with her husband, Warren, says he and her son Andrew were both happy to give samples. "Anything the police do to catch the culprit I think 99 percent of the people would support," she says. "When you live in a little country town and you know the dear old lady ... all your life, you do anything you can to help."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society