While I was on holiday, the Kuwait parliament passed a law that will require mandatory DNA testing for all citizens and expatriate residents in Kuwait.
The law still needs to be approved by the Amir and published in the official gazette. Under the new law, the Interior Ministry will establish a DNA database of all Kuwait’s 4+ million residents.
As a law-abiding resident, I will offer up my DNA and that of my children, though not without a few misgivings. Kuwait’s plan aims to support the country’s counter-terrorism efforts.
Given the horrific and terrifying events of June 26, I can understand the desire to do anything to increase Kuwait’s security. And it’s not like Kuwait is the first country to collect DNA from large populations.
Both the US and the UK use DNA databases for criminal investigations and counter-terrorism efforts – though to much more limited degrees. In several US states including Florida and New York, for instance, newborn DNA is collected – and stored – by the state without parents’ knowledge or consent. The material is used in a variety of ways: research, criminal investigations, legal cases and in some cases, genetic disease profiling.
Already opponents have pointed to concerns about infringement of privacy and there will inevitably be discussions about the potential for abuse. Anyone that has read ‘Fahrenheit 451’, ‘1984’ or any other dystopian novel about government overreach will certainly be concerned with how the DNA samples may be profiled, stored and exploited to harm people, invade their privacy or otherwise exploited to the public’s harm.
As neither a scientist nor a DNA expert, I cannot even begin to imagine all the possible ways this plan can go wrong. But here are a few obvious concerns that should be part of the debate in Kuwait on this issue.
First, the Kuwait government, sorry to say, doesn’t exactly have the best track record when it comes to reliable, professional and well managed systems. Let’s not forget that nearly all government transactions were shut down for days in April thanks to a fire at the Interior Ministry’s Information Systems Management building in Hawally.
DNA profiles provide a range of information, not only a way to indentify a terrorist or criminal. Medical information including genetic diseases (or those that we might simply be at-risk for) can be determined as well as familial relations including paternity and siblings.
This can be a very good and useful thing, especially for expecting moms or young families that need more in-depth medical information. But should the government have access to all our medical profiles (both inherited diseases and possible risk?) especially as it also readies to further segregate medical care and set up a new expat medical sector replete with expat hospitals and more expensive medical insurance? Let’s not also forget simple human error. DNA is not foolproof. DNA samples are handled by humans in collection, at the laboratory and in storage and thus subject to human errors and mistakes.
Just finding the highly trained and educated staff necessary for establishing a DNA laboratory with the highest standards will likely be a challenge. How, then, will the government set about collecting the DNA of all 4+ million of us? And once collected, how, when and where will it be analyzed, and then stored? How will it be collated or connected to our civil ID numbers and what quality-control measures will be in place to protect us all against errors? There is also potential for abuse: DNA collected from the remains of a political gathering (the leftover coffee cups, cigarette stubs and water bottles, for instance) can tell authorities exactly who was where and when.
Deliberate abuse of DNA profiles for the reasons of blackmail, marriage profiling, (imagine someone wanting to check the profile of the man who has proposed to his daughter?) or even for families squabbling over inheritances are all possible.
The potential problems are many and the benefits to be gained remain unclear. Already passed into law, the time for discussion has passed but for everyone living in Kuwait who will be affected by this new DNA law – and I do mean everyone – it’s still something to consider.
© Kuwait Times 2015Jul 2015