DNA Sampling — For Everyone?

dna11a.jpgThe New York Times reports:

The Justice Department is completing rules to allow the collection of DNA from most people arrested or detained by federal authorities, a vast expansion of DNA gathering that will include hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants, by far the largest group affected.

The new forensic DNA sampling was authorized by Congress in a little-noticed amendment to a January 2006 renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, which provides protections and assistance for victims of sexual crimes. The amendment permits DNA collecting from anyone under criminal arrest by federal authorities, and also from illegal immigrants detained by federal agents. . . .

The goal, justice officials said, is to make the practice of DNA sampling as routine as fingerprinting for anyone detained by federal agents, including illegal immigrants. Until now, federal authorities have taken DNA samples only from convicted felons.

The collection of DNA is now expanded to arrestees, whereas before it was for convicted criminals. Does the fact that it applies to arrestees–people who could be innocent of crimes–change the privacy implications? In the past, I’ve posted about whether there should be a national DNA database for everyone. The arguments made on behalf of the DNA database for arrestees and convicts could readily apply to such a broader DNA database. I wrote:

The benefits of using DNA identification are quite significant, since many people who have been wrongly convicted based on erroneous eye witness testimony (which is very unreliable) have been exonerated with DNA. Adding more DNA profiles will improve the database.

Nevertheless, I am very wary of the power the database gives the government. Since we leave trails of our DNA wherever we go, it might be possible to link particular people to particular places. That’s what is done with crime scenes, but what if the use expanded beyond crime scenes?

For those who are unconcerned about the collection of DNA for arrestees, what if the DNA database contained the DNA of all citizens? After all, if it is beneficial in investigating crime and can be extended to arrestees who are later exonerated, why not take the next step and extend it to everybody? Would this pose a problem?

Hat tip: Deven Desai

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5 Responses

  1. KipEsquire says:

    I don’t see how expanding DNA databases helps acquit the innocent. If I’m falsely accused and there is DNA evidence of the truly guilty party, then I will simply volunteer a sample of my own for comparison, just as I would produce any other exculpatory evidence. “Improving the database” has nothing to do with it.

  2. PK says:

    Is the routine collection of this kind of personal identifying information from arrestees reasonable under the Fourth Amendment? It seems that the police have a valid interest in identifying who they’ve arrested, so fingerprinting makes sense to a certain extent. But how is this routine collection of DNA reasonably related to the investigation of every crime?

  3. I hope this does get challenged under Fourth Amendment, and under general privacy concerns in the legislature. Fingerprints of innocents, pervasive surveillance cameras, “digital dossiers”, and now DNA. How much freedom will we have left to love?

    DNA (like fingerprints and retinas) can’t be changed like a password when it gets compromised, and can be abused in so many ways.

  4. I have no problem with convicted felons being put in a DNA database; am more ambivalent about arrestees and not at all thrilled about a universal database.

    I am however amused that despite that we are required to report annually where we live and what we did with our lives the previous year to a Federal AND State government agency; despite that we cannot give a dollar to any Federal office candidate without disclosing who we are, where we live and how much we give…and we better have not given too much; despite all that, a swab of saliva is what gets so-called civil libertarians so excited.

  5. Sigivald says:

    The question being, of course, whether it’s an “unreasonable” search and seizure or not.

    As there are no guidelines in the Constitution for what constitutes a “reasonable” search or seizure (let alone in the context of technology not even imagined in 1789), it’s impossible to say in a clear and obvious way whether or not it’s Constitutional.

    It might well be a terrible idea from a civil liberties point of view even if it’s Constitutionally permissible; too many people constantly make the (unconscious?) assumption that the Constitutional and the Right are isomorphic. (Big fancy talk for “the same”, really.)