From USA Today (via the invaluable Free-Market.net) comes news that a "a proposed law moving through Congress" would allow the FBI to add "DNA profiles from hundreds of thousands of juvenile offenders and adults arrested but not convicted of crimes" the bureau's national DNA database."

The law, if enacted, would be the greatest single expansion of the federal government's power to collect and use DNA since the FBI's national database was created in 1992. The FBI says its national DNA database holds genetic profiles from about 1.4 million adults convicted of state and federal crimes.

The changes, in a little-noticed section of a bill that would authorize $755 million for DNA testing, were approved by the House of Representatives on Nov. 5. Backers say the Senate is likely to approve a similar version by early next year.

Whole thing here.

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  1. Fyodor,

    Not sure about other states, but in Illinois our 8th grade class had to line up and get fingerprinted (c. 1983) Sort of a grade school graduation ritual, I guess. I assume the county, or someone, still has them.

  2. DNA, while it is ostensibly used for identification purposes only, contains much, much more information than a fingerprint. The potential for abuse is very large.

    I’m not really comfortable with the providers of insurance having access to my DNA without my consent, and I’m not comfortable with the government having it for similar reasons. Federally housed DNA databases should be a concern for anyone interested in maintaining privacy from government snooping without a warrant.

  3. Since joe started the comparison game, I wonder what is worse (a greater compromise of privacy) than mug shots, fingerprints, or DNA? How will I know when the government has exceed its just power to intrude in my affairs? Technology will make it increasingly easier to store and access ever more comprehensive details of everything that happens. How do we decide when the database is suffcient?

    Maybe DNA is worse because mug shots and fingerprints are already enough in the vast majority of cases? That someone is watching me without my consent is, I think, a de facto invasion of privacy. If the US values privacy, are the marginal gains in law enforcement worth the marginal losses of privacy exacted by a DNA (or some future) database?

  4. Y’know, Mark Fox makes a very interesting point. Even in lieu of which is “worse,” why the hell do we need more than one? If fingerprints indentify us adequately, what good does DNA testing even do for law enforcement?

  5. Y’know, Mark Fox makes a very interesting point. Even in lieu of which is “worse,” why the hell do we need more than one? If fingerprints indentify us adequately, what good does DNA testing even do for law enforcement?

    Probably because there are circumstances in which fingerprints might not be left behind but a suspect may leave behind blood, semen, saliva, or hair which can be used to place them at the scene of the crime.

  6. Thorley Winston: Yes, the DNA must offer some value to law enforcement (unless they’re even stupider than I fear). But is it worth the trouble, and potential for abuse? If I helps catch my mom’s murderer, sure–but if it helps imprison my mom unjustly, not at all. Looking beyond some set of results, what are the principles involved?

    Expandind on Jason’s point, a more comprehensive database may in future be used for some then-justifiable reason, prompting some government (-sanctioned) action upon me. We can make laws saying that such data mining is wrong/inadmissable, but laws don’t stop crime from happening. (or why do we need these databases in the first place?)

    Whether I am being spied on in real time, or via a recording, it still seems an invasion of privacy. How do we strike the balance between freedom and justice?

  7. If you get arrested, your fingerprints are on record forever.

    Fingerprints are just as much an ID as DNA. What this would allow is basically bagging serial killers and rapists (who often have juvenile and/or previous records) without going through the laborious process of watching them kill and/or rape 15 people before they screw up. One DNA sample, one record, one arrest. Anyone remember Richard “Nightstalker” Raimerez? He got caught early because a computer matched his fingerprint to a previous arrest for stealing a car. Who knows how many people he saved.

    And more DNA records won’t lower accuracy, any more than fingerprints. At most a misID would cause a bad arrest, but that could quickly be cleared up by another test directly matching the accused with the sample.

    I think it’s a good idea. Marching into the 21st century of law enforcment and all that.

  8. Toxic: Because fingerprints only establish a person’s presence at the scene, and offer no predictive value about, say the likelihood of getting some disease, they are essentially limited to law enforcement and ID functions. Maybe that is a good place to draw the line.

    eg. “If the infomation can be used outside of law enforcement, law enforcement is not allowed to collect it, unless by warrant in specific cases.”

  9. Having a DNA sample, and running a complete analysis of said DNA for health issues, are two completly different thing. The test they would run on the DNA would not be a complete analysis of your genome; it would just look for the identifying features. The same reason they don’t print you balls, or take pictures of your ankles during the mugshot process— they serve no purpose as far as identification goes. The police don’t give a rats ass if you have a recessive gene that causes cystic fibrosis. They have no interest in the information, and so aren’t going to pay for a complete genetic workup over every punk that comes across their path.

    I don’t think it would be a marginal benefit at all, btw. Criminals tend to be repeat offenders. Plenty of unsolvable crimes will be solvable. ALl you have to do to defeat fingerprinting is to wear gloves. To defeat DNA, you have to not lose any hair, skin cells, blood, semen, all of which is difficult to impossible to completly control. Having a database like this would be essentially similiar to fingerprint databases, but would provide a hell of a lot more functionality.

  10. A standard specimen test cost 400 bucks, plus some other charges. A complete set of DNA tests, including the specimen test, would run close to 2000 bucks.


    Now, explain to me why the police would want to run a Hereditary Hemochromatosis test, when all they want is an ID?

  11. Toxic: Thanks for the distinction. If the DNA tests the bill supports are essentially limited to an ID function, then it seems within the line as already drawn. What happens when the cost of a complete DNA test drops to that snapping mug shots? And/or if the common practice becomes complete testing? Are we to trust the state to destroy all supra-ID aspects of the information gathered?

    Tangentially, if other evidence suggested the perp had some bizarre disease/formation, the police would want the full test, no?

    Beware the Six-Fingered Man… 🙂

  12. Perhaps they would want a complete test at that point… but they would then have to actually have the accused on hand to generate the test.

    My understading of the process is this— test is made. Results computerized. The sample is probably destroyed; no reason to keep it around. To run further tests, the perp would have to be available. It’s a special case.

    2) Why would complete testing become the standard? Even if DNA testing becomes dirt cheap, there is no plausible reason for the police to want a complete genetic workup on any given perp. None. And it will always be cheaper to run just one test as compared to 10.

    3) Your arguement is a slippery slope arguement. Could it become some horrible 1984 thing. I suppose. But that’s a rather improbable scenario, made seemingly plausible because of peoples fear and ignorance of DNA. This discussion is a good example— people just assumed that from a dna sample you would know everything there is to know about a persons DNA. That simply isn’t true. Nor is it plausible that the police would every have any general interest in the health of their subjects, nor would they be willing to pay any more money than needed for their purposes, which is ID, not health care.

    THe point is that, with this plan, the probability of stopping criminals in their tracks (before they commit a huge number of crimes) later on go up considerably, just as fingerprinting did when it came into force. I don’t see it as a plausible threat to privacy. If the government were dictating that everyone provide a sample, that would be a different story. But the same would be true if they demanded fingerprints from everyone. As is, it is merely the addition of another identification toolkit used by the police, including fingerprints, tattoo descriptions, and mugshots. Could it be abused? Yes. But that doesn’t neccesarily mean that it will. The potential for abuse is rather low, and also counter to the finacial interests of the police departments that will be fronting the cash for the these tests.

  13. Neat. I was making a slippery-slope argument, and I read part of yours as a cost-effectiveness argument. A very effective tool may still be counter to other ideals, thus my wariness of the slope.

    A more paranoid extension: The DNA collection system is setup, for excellent reasons, but then in future enables some other arm of the state to intrude more easily. Maybe health care becomes a police function, after we are found to be criminally obese?

    A different form of paranoia: Since it is so difficult to protect against leaving any DNA anywhere, if I extremely valued my privacy, it would be more difficult for me to remain anonymous, even when I was acting within the law.

    We can well support testing as it stands, and I will remain (somewhat) vigilant against potential abuses.

    Maybe pro-testers should adopt a new term, like “Genetic ID”, to get around the common misperceptions about “DNA”?

    btw, my thought about complete testing becoming the norm was along the lines of bundling cable channels or Happy Meals. It would be cheaper to buy only what you want, but the “market” doesn’t always offer a la carte.

  14. Heh. Well, I actually thought of something like that. Some liberals decide that the police should be responsible for warning juveniles of potential health problems, and sues to mandate complete testing. I can’t imagine it working, but then I never thought that you could sue McDonalds for making delicious fries.
    My point is just this: the abuses possible with DNA ID basically comes from other groups forcing the police to abuse its power. The police, having a limited scope and limited means, can be trusted to keep things pretty reasonable, if only because those abuses accomplish nothing for them, while costing them a considerable amount of money. I don’t care how cheap the test itself gets, there’s still highly trained professionals needed to administer the tests who won’t be taking a pay cut, so it will always be expensive to run a lot of tests, not to mention maintain an increasingly large and complex national database. IN and of itself , I see no harm. The problem out outside forces abusing the system… it’s a problem, but it doesn’t discredit the system itself. I find social engineering lawsuits despicable abuses, but I don’t regret the creation of civil courts.

  15. fyodor,

    I’d destroy the fingerprints of anyone who is not charged, or who is acquitted. We should be keeping the government under surveillance, not making it easier for it to track US.

  16. OK, convince me. Why is it worse to take DNA from arrestees than to take a mug shot?

  17. If you aren’t a criminal you have nothing to fear. Right?

    Besides, nobody cares a fig if the federales have your fingerprints, why should anyone care if they have your DNA? Same, Same.

    What? Me Worry? Well, sometimes…and, remember this: Just because you ain’t paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.


  18. Joe, for starters, mugshots are not considered identification. Mugshots are pointers to help cops and the courts ID people. Second, we’ve already seen that collecting and using DNA samples is hardly error free. Collecting, cataloguing and storing MORE records is only going to make DNA ID less reliable and useful. In short, this is a move away from making the legal system a way of handling cases brought before the courts and toward making it a conveyor belt.

  19. joe,

    If the mug shot is digital, and is included in a national database wired to every public surveillance camera in the country, probably nothing. They’re equally bad.

  20. I might add, though, that’s leaving aside issues of which practice is most intrusive, or to violate “reasonable expectations of privacy.” ANYBODY can take a picture of you.

  21. OK, Kevin, fingerprints or scar/mole/tatoo lists, then.

  22. Are fingerprints kept on folks arrested not convicted? If so, this doesn’t seem to be any worse, as far as the privacy goes (though maybe it’s worse for other reasons). It does chaff me all the times the gov’t tries to treat people arrested as the same as convicted.

  23. Can you say slippery slope?

    “Keeping DNA profiles on file to solve future crimes, they argue, differs little from maintaining a database of fingerprints, which the FBI also does.”
    End of quote
    Now the law is passed and next time we will read:

    ” to solve future crimes, they argue, differs little from maintaining a database of DNA profiles, which law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, already do.”
    And then that law is passed and next time we will read……

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