Junkfood Science: The government’s DNA database expected to soar

April 18, 2008

The government’s DNA database expected to soar

“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” — Benjamin Franklin

This week, United States Department of Justice officials announced plans to change the current policy for collecting DNA samples from convicted felons. Now, they plan to collect DNA samples from anyone arrested by a federal law enforcement agency — whether or not they are ever charged with any crime or convicted — as well as from all foreigners who are retained. The samples are for building the governmental DNA database known as CODIS.

As Eileen Sulivan of Associated Press reported:

There are dozens of federal law enforcement agencies, ranging from the FBI to the Library of Congress Police. The federal government estimates it makes about 140,000 arrests each year. Justice officials estimate the new collecting requirements would add DNA from an additional 1.2 million people to the database each year.

Congress voted to give the government this authority to expand its DNA collection in two different laws passed in 2005 and 2006. How many heard that news?

Supporters, led by the Homeland Security Department, say it will help to curb violent crime. Their evidence is a Chicago study in 2005 that found that 53 murders and rapes could have been prevented if a DNA sample had been collected upon arrest, Sulivan reported. “Many innocent lives could have been saved had the government began this kind of DNA sampling in the 1990s when the technology to do so first became available,” said Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz) who sponsored the 2005 law that gave the Justice Department this authority.

The DNA samples, which contain an individual's unique genetic code, are compared against nearly 4 million genetic profiles gleaned from crime scenes and other sources as part of a data bank run by the FBI to help investigate crimes. “DNA is a proven law-enforcement tool,” according to Russ Knocke, Homeland Security Department spokesman.

The policy has raised concerns about the privacy of the innocent, said Associated Press:

Expanding the DNA database, known as CODIS, raises civil liberties questions about the potential for misuse of such personal information, such as family ties and genetic conditions.

The new regulation would mean that the federal government could store DNA samples of people who are not guilty of any crime, said Jesselyn McCurdy, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. "Now innocent people's DNA will be put into this huge CODIS database, and it will be very difficult for them to get it out if they are not charged or convicted of a crime," McCurdy said.

The proposed rule is being published in the Federal Register. That will be followed by a 30-day comment period.

States are also dramatically expanding their DNA sampling beyond convicted felons and sex offenders, to include tens of thousands of suspects before they are tried. According to DNAResource.com, which tracks DNA-related laws, 12 states already have laws that permit sampling for felony arrests, up from five in 2006, and another 21 are considering such proposals.

A list of State Laws on DNA Data Banks is here.

And a list of expanded legislation is here.

International example

The UK put such laws into place five years ago and already its genetic database is the largest of any country in the world, housing DNA material on 5.2% of the population, the Daily Post reported last week.

“ALMOST 600 North Wales children were added to the DNA database in just three months, shocking new figures reveal,” it said. “Youngsters aged between 10 and 17 accounted for around one in four new additions to the database, according to records released in Parliament.”

North Wales Police, alone, added 2,061 people to the national database just between last October and January — 13.7% were under age 16, and another 15.2% were 16 to 18 years of age. Deputy Chief Constable Clive Wolfendale with the North Wales Police said: “We are entitled to do this and as a force we use this to the maximum...We use it down to the age of criminal responsibility, which is 10.”

Jenny Willot, the justice spokesperson for the Lib Dem told the Daily Post:

There is something horribly Big Brotherish about a society that is adding over 5,000 kids a month nationally to a DNA database when they’re not even old enough to get a National Insurance Number. People who have never been charged or convicted with any offence should have their DNA removed from the database. It is completely unacceptable for the Government to hold the DNA of innocent people on record forever.

Alarms were issued by DNA forensics pioneer Sir Alan Jeffries in 2006, who said the national DNA database was being used for purposes for which it was not intended. He called it a mission creep, initially established to be DNA from criminals now populated by large numbers of entirely innocent people who had never been convicted of any crime. Prime Minister Tony Blair said that he wanted to see the details of as many people as possible stored on the database, the Daily Mail reported. The newspaper article highlighted those questioning why the government was keeping this information. The chairmen of the National DNA Database Strategy Board, Chief Constable Tony Lake, told the paper that there was a disproportionate number of young black men on the database due to the “use of stop-and-search powers.”

The government insists innocent people “have nothing to fear,” according to the Daily Post, leading one reader to ask: “Who decides who is innocent?”

If you’re concerned about the privacy protections in place for your genetic information here in the U.S., this article offers more information on the status of the laws to date: “Do you know how your genetic information could be used?”

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