Nature Middle East | House of Wisdom

Tough times, tough measures for Kuwait

Kuwait has greenligted the creation of a DNA database of all its 1.3 million citizens, and 2.9 million foreign residents – a surprising move that DNA privacy advocates deem “ill advised.”

Parliament, based on a government request, mandated the law earlier this month, allowing the country’s Interior Ministry to establish said database. Now, people who refuse to provide genetic samples for testing could be jailed or fined, according to this AFP report. Furnishing fake samples is punishable by a seven-year prison sentence.

The decision came in the wake of a suicide attack in a Shiite mosque in Kuwait’s capital that left 227 people wounded. The militant terror group known as the Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility.

The entire endeavor is expected to set back the Kuwaiti government some $400 million, dug out from the country’s emergency cash, something that Hellen Wallace, director of GeneWatch UK, genetic science watchdog, calls “a waste of resources.”

“It does not help to solve more crimes or prevent acts of terrorism, especially by suicide bombers who are not concerned about their identities being revealed after the event,” she tells Nature Middle East.

Wallace says that a DNA database reveals private information about biological relationships, for instance. “It also allows everyone on the database to be tracked by the government or any outsider who can infiltrate the system, because people leave their DNA wherever they go, such as on their coffee cup, not only at a crime scene.

“Finally, the risk of errors increases with large databases, as DNA evidence can be planted or contaminated, leading to false accusations and even false convictions for a crime.”

The UK and Portugal have previously mulled over building DNA databases of their populations but had an about face. The European Court of Human Rights, following a case in 2008, judged unanimously that the indefinite retention of innocent people’s DNA profiles, fingerprints and samples is unlawful, breaching Article 8 of the European convention on Human Rights, which is the “right to privacy.”

A 2014 study published in the Egyptian Journal of Forensic Sciences, and co-authored by Wallace, suggests that criminalizing all those who refuse to voluntarily provide their DNA will eventually lead to public distrust. The study says that certain questions should always be asked of databases worldwide, especially ones related to safeguards needed to prevent miscarriages of justice, and cross-border sharing of DNA information.

It also highlights the importance of involving the public in such a political debate, something that Kuwait – in its hurry to impose stricter security measures and help authorities make quicker arrests – has clearly sidestepped.

Reference:

Wallace, H.M. et al. Forensic DNA databases-Ethical and legal standards: a global review. Egyptian Journal of Forensic Science http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ejfs.2014.04.002 (2014)

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