Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Government inaction - five years after the NAS report

I have often stated that I do not fear a Big Brother conspiracy in which multiple agencies (including the FBI, the CIA, the BBC, B.B. King, and Doris Day) all gang up on me. Why do I not fear such a conspiracy? Because government agencies are reluctant to cooperate with each other, and because government is usually not organized for fast action.

There's a recent example that's relevant to this argument, and you're probably familiar with it if you're employed in the biometric industry.


Over five years ago, in early 2009, the National Academy of Sciences released a report called "Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward."

This report was a big deal.

A very big deal - so big that even non-biometric people were talking about it. (Which makes sense to certain colleagues in the biometric field, who are convinced that non-biometric people wrote it.) There were some strong statements in the report, as I noted in a 2009 post. One excerpt: some cases, substantive information and testimony based on faulty forensic science analyses may have contributed to wrongful convictions of innocent people. This fact has demonstrated the potential danger of giving undue weight to evidence and testimony derived from imperfect testing and analysis. Moreover, imprecise or exaggerated expert testimony has sometimes contributed to the
admission of erroneous or misleading evidence.

And these are not just allegations or opinions, as the experience of Brandon Mayfield will attest.

From the points of view of constitutionalists and scientists, SOMETHING NEEDED TO BE DONE. And obviously, something was going to be done, because there was now a report from the National Academy of Sciences, and there were some very specific recommendations, and even some people in the biometric industry itself supported those recommendations. (I won't get into that part of the story here.)

So...what happened? How did the various government agencies respond to the recommendations in the report?

Homeland Security News Wire tells us about all the progress that has been made.

C&EN editors Andrea Widener and Carmen Drahl note that the 2009 report served as a critical wake-up call to the public, defense attorneys, and policymakers. Even the most common and long-standing forensic techniques such as fingerprinting were deemed questionable. As scandals in forensic labs within the past five years make clear, however, most efforts to institute major change fizzled out...

What? After this oft-cited report, nothing happened? Not quite, because there's a postscript to the sentence above.

...until last year.

Whew. That's a relief. Four years after the initial report, something got done. What happened?

The Department of Justice (DOJ) and the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) teamed up to create a National Commission on Forensic Science. The new entity is tasked with going back to the 2009 report and figuring out how to turn its recommendations into action. Additionally, NIST is starting an organization to create uniform standards across the field.

For champions of the NAS report, this is excellent news, because now the National Commission on Forensic Science can enact things, and all of the forensic agencies will implement them.

Well, that's true...except for the enacting and the implementing part.

Among the challenges is a lack of money. The DOJ and NIST are tackling the problem out of their existing budgets, and Congress does not seem inclined to support the issue with new funding. Also, the new commission can make recommendations, but it is up to the U.S. attorney general as to whether to make federal labs follow them. The attorney general, however, cannot force state labs to do the same.

So if you look at the sum total of all that's happened in the last five years, we started in 2009 with a series of recommendations. By 2013, we set up a commission which, if the funds hold out, will be able to produce...a series of recommendations.

I'm sure that supporters of the NAS report are sorely disappointed with this outcome, and people who preferred the status quo are visibly delighted that nothing has happened. From a more general governmental sense, however, should we be distressed that government can't do anything, or delighted that government is incapable of doing things to us?
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