Kuwait, DNA and that thing called privacy

The protracted sagas of the Iran nuclear negotiations, Greece’s third bailout, and the confederate flag dominated the press again this past week, which probably explains why a story representing a historical turning point in DNA data collection and national surveillance barely received any coverage. Either that, or most journalists were already on a beach somewhere willing themselves not to check their Twitter accounts.

While Western powers have been heavily competing with well-known totalitarian regimes for the title of ‘Best in citizen surveillance & privacy infringement,’ it was Kuwait who came up from behind to take the prize by announcing it had passed a law for the mandatory collection of DNA samples for all Kuwaiti nationals and foreign residents. The new law is so comprehensive, there’s even a chance it will be extended to Kuwait’s second-class Bidoons*.

Like most drastic measures taken by governments in recent years, Kuwait’s actions were a reaction to terrorism. Specifically, the bombing of a Shi’ite mosque by ISIL on June 26th that killed 27 people and injured 227. Featuring on Al Jazeera’s Inside Story, Kuwaiti Minister of State for Cabinet Affairs, Mohammed Al Abdullah Al Sabah, said that the suicide nature of the bomb left law enforcers unable to identify the perpetrator without preexisting DNA in the national database. The sweeping collection of DNA samples from all citizens, residents, and (potentially) visitors to Kuwait would remedy that.

As the first country to impose mandatory DNA collection, Kuwait is navigating unchartered territories. Since 1995 when the first DNA database was created in the UK, DNA phenotyping has proved useful in solving crimes and securing convictions around the world. So furthering that process by expanding the scope of a national database is not an unreasonable next step. After all, we unwittingly shed our DNA everywhere we go. If you know you haven’t committed a crime, what’s the problem?

These are the pro arguments; and, parallel to them, the minister was keen to defend his government’s decision by presenting it as a not so drastic leap from Kuwaiti norms, considering: (a) it already has mandatory fingerprint testing (presumably rendered futile for identification purposes this time around by aforementioned detonation method), and (b) mandatory DNA testing for couples getting married in order to guard the integrity of the Kuwaiti gene pool.

He might have a point. Despite facing a hefty fine and jail time for not obliging to a cheek swab, Kuwaitis appear unruffled by the news (being the first in the world at something does have its allure). There is a reason, however, that in 2008 the European court of human rights ruled against the UK’s “blanket and indiscriminate” collection and retention of DNA: it breaches a person’s right to privacy.

Portrait from artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg's exhibition, Stranger Visions.Screen Shot 2015-07-21 at 18.54.12In her exhibition, Stranger Visions, artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg created portraits from genetic material from cigarette butts, chewing gum and hair collected off the street to call attention to “the potential for a culture of biological surveillance.”

Here, the pro-team spokesperson would probably interject the debate to stress that this would be a “private database”, enjoying the same confidentiality as medical records. But this ignores 3 things: (1) the value of a database which connects a person’s genetic code to their contact information; (2) the prevalence of hacking – and occasionally then publicising – private information; (3) the prevalence of human error in DNA testing.

Starting backwards from three: while the science behind a DNA match is itself deemed foolproof, human error can always lead to a wrongful conviction. In theory, having an all-citizens DNA database could increase the probability of wrongful convictions, but whether this is also true in practice remains to be seen. As for two: if you weren’t already familiar with AshleyMadison, you are now. Putting the hacked records of cheating spouses aside, let’s take the data theft of 22.1 million people from the US Office of Personnel Management earlier this month as a more serious example of how the “private & confidential” part of a private database is fiction.

That brings us to one: it’s still hard to glean just how many ways our DNA could be used against us, but one possibility is genetic discrimination. For instance, an insurance firm could increase a client’s premium because he or she has a predisposition to an illness. Or a life insurer or an employer could refuse a client or candidate because their DNA shows that they will likely die within 10 years, which wouldn’t exactly be worth their while. Even George W. Bush recognised the potential repercussions in 2008 when he signed the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act into law, protecting Americans against such discrimination by health insurers and employers.** That’s not to say though that the Kuwaiti government is ignorant – no one can be sure exactly what Bush Jr. was aware of during his time in office.

* Despite making up a significant portion of the population, Bidoons are neither viewed as citizens nor residents of Kuwait, but live in the citizenship equivalent of Dante’s limbo. The 2011-2012 protests in Kuwait were sparked when the Emir of Kuwait extended grants to all citizens, while bypassing the Bidoons, to commemorate the state’s 20th anniversary of liberation from Iraq and the 50th anniversary of its independence.

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