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Kuwait Anti-Terror Program Prepares to Harvest the DNA of Citizens and Foreigners

The unprecedented plan to collect DNA samples from everyone living in Kuwait has rankled privacy advocates and raised human rights concerns.
Photo by Raed Qutena/EPA

Earlier this month, less than a week after a suicide bomb attack claimed by an Islamic State affiliate on a Shiite mosque in the capital of Kuwait killed 27 people and wounded 222, the tiny Gulf emirate adopted a law requiring mandatory DNA testing for all Kuwaitis and foreigners living within the country.

"We had no way of knowing who the perpetrator was because there were no records on file for his fingerprints or his passport," Mohammed Al Abdullah al-Sabah, Kuwaiti Minister of State for Cabinet Affairs, said in a televised interview. "We developed the idea that since we already have mandatory fingerprinting, it would be a logical step to go ahead and create a DNA database."


The creation of a comprehensive genetic database in order to combat terrorism is unprecedented, and has inflamed an already sensitive global debate on national security versus privacy.

Kuwait's parliament approved an emergency fund of $400 million for the Interior Ministry to establish the database, which is expected to compile the genetic records of the country's 1.3 million citizens and 2.9 million expatriates. The Interior Ministry is still considering whether tourists will also be forced to submit DNA.

Related: Islamic State Claims Deadly Bombing of Kuwaiti Mosque

An armored vehicle of the Kuwaiti special forces guards the entrance during Friday prayers at the Grand Mosque in Kuwait City on July 3, 2015. (Photo by Raed Qutena/EPA)

The new law imposes a prison term of one year and a fine of up to $33,000 for those who refuse to provide samples. Those who provide fake samples risk being imprisoned for seven years.

Mandatory pre-marital DNA testing for Kuwaiti couples has already curbed genetically transmitted diseases, Sabah said, and he expects that the DNA database will have the same success in helping maintain public safety.

"I'm aware that certain laws might be regarded in certain parts of the world as an infringement of certain norms," he remarked. "However, it is not that in Kuwait. The law also specifically stated that the DNA database can only be used for said reasons, to identify perpetrators of attack."

'It may be that videotaping everyone in every toilet stall is also useful in some instances, but I doubt that many people would think it either necessary or proportionate.'


The reliability of this database in ensuring security is open to question.

"On its own, I am not sure how useful a DNA database would be at preventing a terrorist attack," Dr. Barry Starr, a geneticist at Stanford University, told VICE News. "Certainly it would make it easier to identify everyone who was at the scene of a terrorist attack…. It would be a useful tool in the police's arsenal, but no magic bullet."

Human rights advocates have countered that the program's potential usefulness is not enough to justify a massive infringement of civil liberties.

"It may be that videotaping everyone in every toilet stall is also useful in some instances, but I doubt that many people would think it either necessary or proportionate," Belkis Wille, Yemen and Kuwait researcher at the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, told VICE News. She acknowledged concerns that the data could be used to discriminate on the basis of ethnicity or even health. "What would be the guarantees that this information would never be used in ways other than for identifying terrorists?"

Related: Security Footage Shows Suspected Suicide Bomber Entering Mosque in Kuwait

Worshippers at the Grand Mosque going through security checks. (Photo by Raed Qutena/EPA)

Though Sabah has indicated that the intergovernmental Gulf Cooperation Council fosters the sharing of information among member states, particularly regarding security concerns, he noted that "the DNA database is a private database. Within the law, it has the same privacy norms as medical records that cannot be shared without a court ruling."


Starr noted that any database can be misused, however, and stressed that DNA in this context brings particular risks.

"For example, imagine an autocratic government decides to crack down on anti-government groups," he said. "I could imagine the police collecting all the Starbucks cups after a meeting and identifying who was there."

Another possibility is that the DNA database could be used to identify the children and possible nieces and nephews of everyone tested.

"This means that a government 20 years from now could identify people not born yet without any additional testing," Starr said.

Thousands of Kuwaitis attend a funeral for victims of the suicide bomb attack on the Imam Sadiq Mosque that took place on June 26, 2015. (Photo by Raed Qutena/EPA)

Akhil Shah, counter-terrorism and policy analyst at the Institute for Gulf Affairs, a DC-based think tank, told VICE News that Kuwaitis are increasingly being forced to live in a "Big Brother" society, invoking the totalitarian surveillance featured in George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

"There is already very little oversight of the security forces, and it seems as though people are unaware about how much this [new law] infringes upon their privacy," he said.

When the United Kingdom established the world's first DNA database in 1995, it initially collected samples of convicted criminals but later took them from anyone who was arrested. In 2008, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that keeping innocent people's DNA records breached an article of the European Convention of Human Rights that included the right to respect for "private and family life." In 2013, as part of the UK's Protection of Freedoms Act, the profiles of 1.7 million innocent people were destroyed.


Related: How a Campaign to Analyze Old DNA Evidence Is Impacting Survivors

As of 2015, the UK's database contains samples of some 5.7 million people. The other two of the world's three largest DNA databases are in the United States: CODIS, the FBI's "combined DNA index system," which contains more than 11 million profiles from federal, state, and local forensic laboratories; and the California DNA Database, which contains more than 2 million profiles.

DNA's "usefulness depends entirely on the quality of those delivering the system: skill of the forensic scientists collecting samples from the crime scene, the skill of the laboratory technicians, and the quality control of the laboratories," Jennifer Temkin, a professor of law at City University London and member of the National DNA Database Ethics Group, an advisory public body, told VICE News.

In England and Wales, she said, DNA is closely regulated and access to the database is strictly limited.

"There are ethical and civil liberties issues involved in collecting DNA from people who have no connection whatever with criminal activity, particularly in the light of the fact that DNA analysis is not infallible," Temkin added. "The right to privacy is an acknowledged human right."

Follow Mansi Choksi on Twitter: @mansi_choksi