Gattaca-Style DNA Databank For 3 Million Americans

The American DNA databank used by law enforcement is growing by 80,000 people every month. Without public debate, the state and federal rules have widened considerably from the original mandate to include only the DNA of violent felons.

Here are some of the concerns raised:

  • Law enforcement officials have engaged in "DNA Dragnets" in which thousands of people were asked to submit tissue samples to prove their innocence.
  • "Familial searches" in which police find crime-scene DNA that is "similar" to that of a known criminal, and then pursue all of that criminal's family members.
  • DNA has a lot more information than other unique identifiers, like a fingerprint. DNA may show susceptibility to disease, who your real father is, and other data that should remain private, and have nothing to do with crime.
  • At least 38 states now have laws to collect DNA from people convicted of misdemeanors like fortunetelling. At least 28 states now collect from juvenile offenders.
  • Five states (and four more by the end of this year) allow DNA scas of people who have simply been arrested.
  • The DNA system is prone to error. In one case, a juvenile offender was matched to a old crime-scene sample; the case was thrown out when it was finally realized that the juvenile offender was a baby at the time of the old crime. It turned out that the juvenile offender's blood was processed on the same day as the older specimen and one contaminated the other.
In the twelve years of the DNA databank's existence, only 30,000 "cold hits" or matches to crime-scene evidence or DNA sampling have been found, making a conviction possible. Felony convictions handed down per year in the U.S. average about 1,000,000 per year. That means that the DNA database was responsible catching less than one quarter of one percent of criminals.

I'm most concerned about the tendency of government organizations and corporations to find other uses for this kind of information. Corporations, for example, might be very interested in your DNA before hiring you. If it can be shown that you have a genetic tendency to particular illnesses, they may refuse to hire you due to health costs - and you would never know why you weren't hired. There are a wide variety of biometric identification systems available; some are more intrusive than others.

This idea is well-illustrated in the science fiction film Gattaca, in which compulsory DNA testing was used by corporations to strictly limit employability. The same DNA database was used in simple traffic stops, in which every person was forced to submit to a cheek swab for DNA just because they happened to pass that way.


(Gattaca: innocent motorists get tested)

Obviously, these concerns need to be weighed against our right to use every reasonable method to catch and deter criminals. What do you think?

Read more at Vast DNA Bank Pits Policing Vs. Privacy (registration required). Read this earlier article on National Worker DNA Fingerprint Database Proposed.

Update 30-Apr-2007 Read some useful criticism and good links in the comments. (End Update)

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