The Monitor's View

Mission creep in DNA data banks

A new rule would require DNA samples from all arrested for federal crimes.

The US Justice Department plans to expand collection of DNA samples from people convicted of federal crimes to all those arrested on suspicion of committing them. The expansion will help catch serial violent offenders, but will it snare privacy rights in the process?

Congress authorized adding arrestees – including detained illegal aliens – as an amendment to the Violence Against Women Act of 2005. The expansion is to identify elusive serious offenders (rapists, murderers) when they're arrested for other crimes. An arrestee's knowledge that a DNA sample has been taken is also seen as a crime deterrent. Thirteen states already take DNA samples from arrestees.

The change, set out in a rule open for public comment until May 20, would add more than 1 million entries a year to the FBI's DNA bank. It's the world's largest criminal DNA bank, containing nearly 6 million entries. The states feed data into the FBI bank.

Civil libertarians are concerned about such creeping scope. They warn that the nation is not adequately discussing the trade-off between privacy rights and genetically assisted law enforcement.

Genetic evidence is a boon to the criminal justice system. It's solving crimes and exonerating the falsely convicted (215 cases so far). The public may be hooked on television episodes like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, but only 46 percent of Americans would trust law enforcement with access to their genetic test results, according to a 2007 poll by the Genetics and Public Policy Center.

The warning of mission creep should be heeded, though the FBI expansion is not as alarming as it sounds. People arrested on suspicion of a federal crime are already routinely fingerprinted. Only 13 locations on the human genome are entered into the FBI's data bank. This is identification information only – containing nothing about medical conditions, for instance – and as such is an extension of fingerprinting. Strict rules forbid mining for genetic traits or diseases.

But the proposed rule raises troubling issues. The bank's contents would include data from those innocent until proven guilty. The onus is wrongly on them, once exonerated, to expunge their DNA from the bank. The removal should be automatic and secured in law. Also, what will happen to the information-rich biological samples? That's where the real danger of misuse lies. The Justice Department is unclear about this. The American Civil Liberties Union advocates sample destruction.

Law enforcement is under pressure to demand more from DNA data banks. For instance, the scientific director of Denver's crime lab says he can envision a world in which DNA can help predict a medical condition to help track down a suspect; where criminal data banks are tied to other data banks, such as driver's licenses; and where law enforcement has access to genetic studies done originally for scientific research.

Such developments deserve serious debate, along with this problem: a backlog in processing and paying for DNA samples. At what point is too much data actually detrimental to solving crimes? At what point does it increase errors?

The nation must be careful to take up these issues fully, and not one day suddenly find it has gone several steps too far in giving up its citizens' precious privacy rights.

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