In the last fifteen years forensic DNA collection and the resulting databases have changed dramatically, with DNA collection by law enforcement around the globe now routinely being used for a multiplicity of purposes that pose significant privacy and civil rights concerns to citizens with little public debate. Safeguards to protect against possible adverse effects are piecemeal and vary widely from country to country.
DNA profiling is different from other methods of identification such as fingerprints. It can identify individuals and also their entire family. Stored DNA samples can provide a window into an individual’s medical history if they are further analysed. Among the many issues raised by the expanding use of DNA databanks that pose a very serious threat to global democracy and privacy are: the retention of DNA samples long after the DNA profiles necessary for future identification purposes have been obtained, DNA “dragnets” (collecting DNA from populations devoid of individualized suspicion), weak safeguards for the information once it is collected, and DNA surveillance of families (familial DNA searches).
But perhaps the most serious challenge to human rights is the collection and retention of the DNA of innocent people. Some law enforcement agencies are now collecting “voluntary” samples from individuals after stops for alleged minor infractions in exchange for not filing charges. But the greatest threat to human rights comes from the collection of DNA samples upon arrest. This, despite the fact that DNA is not (and cannot) actually be used to verify identity upon arrest; laying bare the true purpose of its collection to be investigative. Because only a fraction of those who are arrested are ultimately charged and convicted, however, this practice necessarily permits the government to collect DNA from innocent people; a legal search without a court order that turns the presumption of innocence on its head. Countries vary in their procedures for removing profiles of innocent individuals from databases and/or destroying their biological samples. Some have no such procedures, while others can be difficult and expensive to navigate. Still others remain in “offline” local police control with no oversight at all. That the government would obtain DNA from any innocent person is disturbing, but the practice visits a special and severe harm upon minorities. Members of minority groups are arrested in disproportionate numbers, and a disproportionate percentage of innocent arrestees are likely to be minorities.
Indeed, bigger databases and expanded collection practices necessarily increase the chance that innocent people will have their DNA taken, used and stored by the state purely because of false matches and error, which can occur by chance or through poor laboratory/police practice. For instance, an analyst for the New York City medical officer’s office was caught faking the results of control samples. The consequences can be severe. Consider the case of Steven Myer, an Ohio man who was indicted for burglary based solely on DNA evidence. He spent seven months in jail before being released after subsequent retesting proved it was not his DNA sample.
Moreover, evidence shows that when it comes to DNA databases, bigger just isn’t better. As the UK database, for example, ballooned in size there was no statistical increase in the number of crimes detected using DNA, because most people are unlikely to commit serious crimes for which DNA evidence might be relevant.
The negligible law enforcement benefit of expanding DNA databases beyond likely re-offenders, coupled with significant privacy and human rights concerns, require that policymakers give much more thought to the risks of proposed database expansions and collection practices.
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