DNA collection from the innocent as well as the guilty

2 minute read

According to the Washington Post, Congress is moving toward approval of a measure that would require DNA collection from all federal detainees, and the recording of results to a central DNA database.

It goes beyond current law, which allows federal authorities to collect and record samples of DNA only from those convicted of crimes. The data are stored in an FBI-maintained national registry that law enforcement officials use to aid investigations, by comparing DNA from criminals with evidence found at crime scenes.

The article points out that fingerprints are currently taken from all detainees and stored in a central database, so the genetic measure would be equivalent.

Here's a non sequitur:

Privacy advocates are especially concerned about possible abuses such as profiling based on genetic characteristics.
"This clearly opens the door to all kinds of race- or ethnic-based stops" by police, said Jim Dempsey, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a digital policy think tank.

It seems to me more likely to stop spurious race-based arrests by making more positive identifications relying on fewer unreliable eyewitnesses.

Indeed, it seems to me the biggest race-related implication of routine DNA evidence-gathering is the possibility that forensics will find a rare allele in a crime-scene sample and broadcast (without eyewitnesses) that the suspect is a member of some race or ethnic group. But they can do that today, without even comparing to a federal database. If it led to many successes, I'm sure we would see it more often. If anything the current measure would reduce this kind of groping, although only incrementally.

In any event, there is a lot of ignorance about genetics out there, and these opposing groups aren't helping it any by suggesting that DNA fingerprinting is somehow going to be used to assess health or medical risks.

Now, there may be good reason to be opposed on general principle: having the government collect more information about us may be a bad thing:

"It's a classic mission-creep situation," said Jim Harper, a privacy specialist with the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. "These guys are playing a great law and order game . . . and in the process creating a database that could be converted into something quite dangerous."

I just wish articles like this would point to a real danger, instead of just waving hands around and making spooky noises. Of course the real danger is precisely this "mission-creep": if they do this, what will be next?

Personally, I think this would be great for do-it-yourself genetic genealogists: just get arrested and ask for your markers on your way out the door.