If you're a science fiction fan, you may remember the 1997 movie "Gattaca," about a future dystopia in which mandatory genetic testing is used to compile a national database of citizens. The future government uses this info to decide who's entitled to lucrative high-status professional careers, and which unfortunates with inferior genes are relegated to sweeping up their offices at night.
If that premise sounds frightening, you may not feel even more uneasy about what you're about to read.
By the end of 2016, Kuwait will become the first nation in the world to require everybody there—residents, expatriates and foreign visitors—to provide a sample of their saliva or blood to government collectors, so that DNA can be extracted and included in a comprehensive national database. Government officials are planning to set up mobile testing centers to go around and gather genetic info from residents. That includes all babies older than six months, who will have to give a DNA sample before their parents can register them as citizens.
Additionally, the Kuwaiti government will create a special center at Kuwait International Airport, where anyone arriving in the country will have to provide a sample. Conversely, if you're a Kuwaiti who's planning to travel overseas, you'll have to give a DNA sample in order to obtain a passport.
Anybody who gets caught trying to game the system—such as forging DNA documents or using fake ones—faces as much as seven years in prison and a stiff fine.
For its part, the government of the Persian Gulf country insists that the DNA database is a needed tool for fighting crime and terrorism. The oil-rich Middle Eastern nation's Parliament passed the law just days after ISIS terrorists bombed a mosque in the capital of Kuwait City, killing 27 people and wounding more than 200. As unnamed government officials told the Kuwait Times, the law bans anyone in the government from leaking any genetic information from the database, and the samples that go to genetic testing labs will be identified only with bar codes, so that lab staffers won't know the identities of the people whose DNA they're testing for the database. Additionally, the government says it only will use the database for identification purposes, and won't keep any health-related genetic data, and it's easy to imagine some sort of diplomatic immunity agreements between the Kuwaiti and other world governments.
Kuwait's not the first government to collect citizen DNA, but extending that to visitors breaks new ground. Civil liberties activists are decrying Kuwait's plans. "Many measures could potentially be useful in protecting against terrorist attacks, but potential usefulness is not enough to justify a massive infringement on human rights," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director for Human Rights Watch, in a press release. "I suppose videotaping every user of a public toilet could be useful too, but that kind of intrusion is hardly necessary or proportionate, and neither is compulsory DNA testing."
Other nations around the world, including the U.S. and European countries, have compiled DNA databases as well, but aren't taking samples from all their citizens. The U.S. government's Federal DNA Database Unit, for example, includes only samples from people who've been arrested for federal crimes and from federal convicts, and also non-citizens who've been detained by U.S. authorities. States also have their own criminal DNA databases, the legality of which was affirmed by a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision. In the UK, police maintain similar records, and also a counterterrorism database containing DNA profiles of about 7,800 individuals that they're keeping an eye upon.
But some are concerned that Kuwait's all-inclusive database could be the wave of the future. "Kuwait is a small country, and people could avoid going there if they want to, but this sets a precedent," cautions Tim Brown, a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, a think tank that analyzes national security, weapons and terrorism issues. "We're going to see other countries doing this as well, especially authoritarian ones."
Brown thinks that even if data-security safeguards are imposed by the agency that's handling the information, it may prove difficult to prevent other officials in the government from using their influence to get a peek at someone's genetic data. "The big question is that who's going to enforce the safeguards, and what sort of auditing will be used to detect violations," he said.
He's also concerned that genetic identifying data could be used by an unscrupulous regime to intimidate political opponents, or even to frame them for crimes. "Once you have someone's DNA, you can claim that it was found at a crime scene," he suggests.
But Brown expects that despite such risks, other countries inevitably will follow Kuwait. "They'll say, we need this data too, so that we can have reciprocity," he predicts. "It's going to launch a sort of arms race."