'Grim Sleeper' case raises privacy concerns over use of DNA
'Grim Sleeper' serial killer case was broken when authorities used DNA taken from the suspect's family members. Is it a breakthrough in police science or an invasion of privacy?
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“This does not violate the US Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protections against unlawful search and seizure,” says Tod Burke, professor of criminal justice at Radford University in Virginia. “But the bigger question is moral and legal: Is this Big Brother? And the answer really is, ‘Yes.’ ”Skip to next paragraph
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Professor Burke and others ask how far this kind of investigation will go.
“The government has justified the collection and retention of the DNA in the database on limited and specific grounds, but now they are pushing out into new, possibly unforeseen uses for the DNA,” says Anne Bowen Poulin, a professor at Villanova University School of Law.
“As science progresses, the government may find additional unforeseen uses, some with more negative impact on the source of the DNA,” Professor Poulin says. “Good police work? Most would probably applaud it. Risk to privacy? We probably won’t know until it’s too late.”
The ACLU has weighed in on the “Grim Sleeper” case, named for the many years that passed between the crimes.
“If you are going to use familial DNA testing, this is probably the case for it,” says ACLU staff attorney Peter Bibring. “But it is a mistake to think this should or could be used all the time.”
Serious privacy concerns raised
DNA collection raises serious privacy concerns because it carries so much information about the person’s health and family relationships, Mr. Bibring says. “It’s not just about criminal activity, it’s so much more than that.”
Others note that because this technique is so new, not much regulation exists, and therefore there is likely to be many court challenges.
“Privacy concerns raised by the use of familial DNA to crack the 'Grim Sleeper' murders may create significant problems for the prosecution, should a defense attorney challenge the evidence,” says James Alan Fox, professor of criminology, law, and public policy at Northeastern University in Boston. He calls the arrest in the “Grim Sleeper” case “surprising” and “unusual.”
“Laws permit the collection and storage of DNA data on certain convicted offenders for use in potentially linking future crimes to these same criminals, but not to their blood relatives who happen to have similar genetic profiles,” he says. “This is not so much a concern for the slippery slope of privacy invasion, but a case of legal quicksand.”
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