Attacks on civil rights continue

Issue 

The NSW Labor government's cabinet, once again intoning the chant of "terrorism", has agreed to introduce compulsory DNA testing for anyone arrested for any offence. The leaked cabinet decision was reported in the June 22 Sydney Sun-Herald.

Once arrested on suspicion of jay-walking, offensive language or any other offence, police will be able to compulsorily take DNA samples by pulling out a strand of a person's hair or taking a mouth swab. At the moment, these samples can only be taken in relation to very serious offences, such as murder or sexual assault.

On July 22, SBS TV reported that the government has refused to guarantee that a person's DNA record will be destroyed later acquitted of the offence. The only restraint on police is that they need to think that the DNA sample might connect a person to a crime — an extremely broad test.

The president of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, Cameron Murphy, said that the new laws were "nothing more than the government obtaining DNA by stealth to build up a DNA database of the entire population of the state".

"The serious dangers of having your DNA in a government database is lifelong discrimination if DNA is misused. If someone finds out from that DNA that they have a genetic propensity [to a particular disease or disorder], they may be denied insurance", Murphy said.

The NSW opposition has given the changes "in principle" support.

Groups that face particular police attention, such as young people and Indigenous Australians, will face a situation where many of them will have their DNA ending up on a police database.

Furthermore, there is the fear that people who are not arrested may have their DNA "calculated" for intelligence purposes. Given the DNA profile of a son and mother, it is easy to work out the father's DNA.

DNA matching is criticised because the apparent "match" seems to have scientific certainty, with the degree of confidence of the match often expressed as millions to one against. However, like fingerprints, there are varying international standards as to what a match is, and the probability statistics employed are in relation to the "general population", and not in relation to distant or close relatives, where the degree of confidence of a match rapidly drops.

Furthermore, concern has been expressed in the past that some defence lawyers do not have the technical knowledge to confidently cross-examine DNA prosecution experts.

Another fear is the arrest of political protesters on the flimsiest of offences, such as apprehended breach of the peace, as an excuse to collect DNA. Multiple arrests for intelligence-gathering purposes was a complaint made by legal observers to the NSW Ombudsman in relation to a protest on May 1 at Australian Correctional Management offices in central Sydney in 2002. The arrests seemed to be motivated by the desire of police officers to take photographs of those arrested — once photographed, people were immediately released. Such multiple arrests may occur in future, with DNA swabs being taken in addition to photographs.

Additional changes under the proposed legislation include limiting to one the number of times a person can apply for bail at a Local Court except on the basis of changed circumstances. The laws are to be introduced in the next parliamentary session.

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