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Willing to give up their DNA, but privacy too?

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Cotton farmers. Mechanics. Weekend rugby players. In the little Australian town of Wee Waa this week, they've all been letting police officers rub a swab against the inside of their cheek.

It takes only a few minutes. It seems harmless. But all the men of Wee Waa have been giving DNA samples in an exercise police hope will lead to the solving of a gruesome crime - the assault and rape of a 91-year-old woman some 18 months ago.

While such DNA dragnets are the cutting edge of sleuthing, critics say that the spread of DNA data banks in Australia, the US, and Britain are an Orwellian slippery slope. In the name of solving violent crimes, people are sacrificing privacy by giving police - and perhaps insurance companies and employers - a genetic profile of themselves, they argue.

Faced with only a few traces of DNA left behind by the rapist, police have asked every man 18 to 45 years old in the New South Wales town (population 2,400) to volunteer to submit genetic samples to help narrow the search for a suspect. "We've had very few people refuse," says Paul Mayger, the Sydney homicide detective leading the testing.

But Chris Puplick, the privacy commissioner of the state of New South Wales, calls it a publicity stunt meant to pressure politicians to approve police plans for a DNA data bank in the state and keep it free of independent oversight. "They won't catch anybody out of this," he says. "Just about everybody admits the person is likely to have left town." An agricultural community, Wee Waa each year sees its share of itinerant workers.

But what police have chosen to do here is a rare, but increasingly common, tactic for investigating crimes.

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