Fight Crime with a Universal DNA Database?


DNA crime

Earlier this week, the New York Times ran a provocative op/ed by Yale law student Michael Seringhaus in which he advocated that the DNA profiles of every American be kept in a central forensic database. The goal of such a database is to help the police fight crime by better enabling them to find perpetrators who leave DNA traces at the scenes of their misdeeds. Current forensic DNA databases generally contain DNA profiles from convicts, but many states and the feds are now also including DNA profiles from arrestees.

Seringhaus thinks the current system is unfair because the databases are racially skewed. He also notes that the practice of familial searches which partial DNA matches can point to family members of people who already have their DNA on file, putting a criminal's family members under a cloud of suspicion although they have not been arrested nor convicted of any crime. Seringhaus is right when he notes that the DNA profiles can be used only for identification and does not reveal other genetic information provided that the DNA samples are destroyed once the profiles are digitally encoded. So what does he think are the advantages of a universal DNA database?

A much fairer system would be to store DNA profiles for each and every one of us. This would eliminate any racial bias, negate the need for the questionable technique of familial search, and of course be a far stronger tool for law enforcement than even an arrestee database.

This universal database is tenable from a privacy perspective because of the very limited information content of DNA profiles: whereas the genome itself poses a serious privacy risk, Codis-style profiles do not.

A universal record would be a strong deterrent to first-time offenders — after all, any DNA sample left behind would be a smoking gun for the police — and would enable the police to more quickly apprehend repeat criminals. It would also help prevent wrongful convictions.

As a practical matter, universal DNA collection is fairly easy: it could be done alongside blood tests on newborns, or through painless cheek swabs as a prerequisite to obtaining a driver's license or Social Security card. Once a biological sample was obtained, its use must be limited to generating a DNA profile only, and afterward the sample would be destroyed. Access to the DNA database would remain limited to law enforcement officers investigating serious crimes.

Since every American would have a stake in keeping the data private and ensuring that only the limited content vital to law enforcement was recorded, there would be far less likelihood of government misuse than in the case of a more selective database.

Interestingly, the American Civil Liberties Union is opposed to collecting DNA samples from anyone prior to conviction, specifically citing the problam of increasing racial disparities in the databanks. However, it would seem that Seringhaus' proposal for a universal DNA databank would obviate the ACLU's racial disparity argument. The ACLU is also worried that DNA samples might be used in ways that violate individual privacy, but once again, that objection fails if the samples are destroyed after the DNA ID profiles are encoded. The main ACLU objection is:

In America, people are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Thousands of people are arrested or detained every year and never charged with a crime. Housing a person's DNA in a criminal database renders that person an automatic suspect for any future crime – without warrant, probable cause, or individualized suspicion.

Law enforcement already has ample authority to collect a DNA sample from an arrested individual in those cases where a court-issued warrant supported by probable cause is first obtained.

But is DNA profiling all that legally different from fingerprinting? After all, the FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) and the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Automated Biometric Identification System (IDENT) already contain the fingerprints of millions of people, both criminal and civil. Back in 2002, I noted:

The legislators and police argue that this expansion of DNA testing simply builds on a century's experience with ordinary fingerprinting. After all, obtaining a DNA sample with a cheek swab is not much more invasive than staining a suspect's fingers with ink, and it's a lot less invasive than alcohol blood testing or semen collection. According to this view, DNA testing is just another, perhaps more effective way to establish a suspect's identity and presence at a crime scene.

In 2006, in a column on using familial DNA searches, I predicted:

…that since collecting DNA is no more invasive than fingerprinting, it seems very likely that a similarly sized national DNA database will be created in the near future. And who knows—someday your genetic profile may be embedded in your national ID card too. Heck, who needs a national ID card if every cop has a fast DNA reader and wireless electronic link to the comprehensive national DNA database? If we want to avoid becoming a database nation, the time to stop it is now.

One final thought–by the end of this decade nearly everyone's physician will have a digital record of his or her complete genome on file. Here's betting that the police will regularly seek and get warrants to access the medical genome files of suspects by 2020.

Disclosure: I am still a member of the ACLU.

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  1. Anything that helps the cops get the druggies is inherently a good idea, I’m all for it.

    1. Great! Just one step closer to Big Brother…Juanita, a DNA Database does not have direct connection with “druggies.” Because someone is a druggie does not mean they murder people, so think about that before being All for something.

  2. I’m with the person behind Juanita–this is crazy stupid. While some utility could be derived from such a database, the potential for abuse is distressing.

    1. If you haven’t done anything bad then what do you need to worry about.

      1. Exactly. Your opposition and mine are clearly in full alignment.

      2. Being arrested for activities which are not “bad” but which are nevertheless illegal.

  3. And with each passing day, expatriation seems more of a viable option…

    1. Where you gonna go? The limeys already do this.

      1. To the Moon, Alice. To the Moon.

      2. Let’s be honest, it’s just a matter of time before this is reality. Look at the open-air prison known as the UK. The USSA is usually just a couple of years behind. Besides, not like a single privacy advocate is running for office anytime soon.

        1. Speaking of privacy, I have a question: Why hasn’t Obama nominated anyone to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board? I mean, how friggin’ hard is it to nominate someone? I could do it myself, if he’s too busy.

          If the Democrats give one farthing for civil liberties, it’s not evident in the party’s current iteration.

          1. And you’re surprised? See: closing Gitmo, ending drug war raids, ad infinitum.

            1. Why, no, I anticipated all of this. Clinton did the same kind of crap, only to a much lesser extent.

  4. It’s distressing to me that the NYT would publish an op-ed that ignores the most basic and obvious objection to such a database: that it allows the government to track people who have done nothing wrong.

    1. Externalities mean we have all done something wrong. Just by living.

      1. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of government…or is it God?…or Obama?

  5. What’s more interesting to me is that it’s relatively easy to fake DNA evidence if you have access to the proper equipment… or know how to order from the internet. We’re probably in the golden age of DNA evidence now. We have good, readily available investigative tools, but the inevitable countermeasures have not yet become common.

    1. That is a very interesting and scary point.

    2. Proper equipment? Like trimmings from a hair salon? Maybe some skin flakes from dust or worn clothing?

      Seriously, it wouldn’t take much intelligence to make sure someone else’s DNA outnumbered yours at a crime scene.

      You can bet that if DNA becomes such an important tool, the use of appropriate countermeasures will become common.

  6. Access to the DNA database would remain limited to law enforcement officers investigating serious crimes

    As Social Security identification numbers would remain limited to providing the elderly poor with a minimum social safety net.

    1. Yep, and they won’t ever be used to obtain false credit accounts in your names since some dipwad at the VA, DMV, or your bank left his computer lying around. Of course not! That could only happen if the Earth was run by aliens, right?

  7. How does this square with Fourth Amendment?

    The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

    Would collecting the DNA sample from every citizen not be a “search and seizure” from every citizen, without even the pretense of probable cause or a warrant? At least when fingerprints/DNA are collected from convicts and even arrestees, the form of Fourth Amendment protection is observed.

    1. Easy: if it’s done to everyone, it’s not “unreasonable”.

      Which is why ridiculously subjective terms (see also “obscene”) should be banned from the text of the law. Which in turn is why prose is wholly unsuited for defining the law…

      1. Maybe it should be in iambic pentameter instead?

  8. This is a classic example of how modern liberalism inevitably leads to authoritarianism. Since limiting the program unfairly affects a favored group, the modern liberal concludes that everyone’s rights must be violated for the sake of equity.

    1. How do we know the student who wrote this is a “liberal”?

      1. What does that have to do with what John said?

        The student may or may not be a liberal, yet the social forces acting to avoid discrimination still lead us to treat everyone unfairly.

    2. I interpret this more as: classic example of “them” (you know the lizard people) using useful liberal idiots and their rhetoric to increase their power.

      I’m not sure yet how important the distinction is though.

  9. As I see it, there are basically two choices.

    One, we can wait for a de facto universal database to come into existence, but it will be unlikely to contain the two key limitations needed to protect privacy: (a) destroy the samples after collection and (b) limit access to reasonable searches.

    Two, we can write those protections into law now and figure out what kind of database is reasonable after that.

    1. Fuck that, I’m encrypting my DNA.

      1. My understanding is that surreptitious collection of DNA from say trash is permissible.

        If you throw a coffee cup or a cigarette into the trash, there’s nothing stopping a cop from picking it up and swabbing it for DNA.

        If Mr. Bailey’s hand-held DNA profiler were available, web and GPS linked, the cops could pay people to go around doing environmental profiling. It wouldn’t take that much math to link profiles to people after that.

        1. Well, actually, some states have limits on this:


        2. Of course, encrypted DNA might be legally viewed as munitions.

        3. I thought trash was private property:

    2. You’re forgetting a third option, biologist:

      Prohibit the police from having any access to the de facto universal database without a warrant.

      If this thing is set up as proposed, as a police database, then there will be no limits on police use of the database, either de facto or de jure.

    3. I’m sure that the MLBPA will tell you about the reasonable expectations of A or B happening.

  10. I did a study some years ago about federal and state government legal restrictions that protect personal privacy. They aren’t very strong, in case you were wondering. Especially outside of a few special areas, like educational records, video-store receipts, and Congressional web history.

  11. Ronald Bailey, if you get down this far, why are you still a member of the ACRU — I mean ACLU? I joined many years ago when they came down on the free speech side of the Skokie march. Recently I feel like half my money is being spent on Civil Liberties and the other half is being spent on things like fighting for Public Schools. I let my membership lapse in the last year. I wish there was some group out there that was like the old ACLU, strictly fighting for Civil Liberties, but I am not aware of any.

    1. I stopped giving money to the ACLU years ago. Too political.

  12. oh shit

  13. I’m concerned that the DNA = fingerprint evidence may not be as clear as we think, especially when we’re talking about mitochondrial DNA.

    I recently came across a Johns Hopkins researcher who claimed that a decade’s worth of DNA testimony may be faulty because some of the assumptions behind the science were bad……..e17827.htm

    It seems to me that the questions about familial false positives (and, as that researcher suggested, false positives in the general population) would only address half of the issue…

    You don’t need a clean record of the genome to get a false positive in the database, in other words, if they only have a degraded DNA sample at the scene of the crime.

    …it seems to me that collecting a degraded DNA sample from the scene of the crime would be more than sufficient to mark an innocent man in the database with a false positive.

    In other words, it very well may be like you’re setting innocent people up for false positives if you’re putting clean samples up in the database but only getting a degraded sample at the scene of millions of crimes.

    Someday, maybe I’ll feel better about this when we’ve tested this in the real world a hell of a lot more [Go ahead and call me a falliblist, I’m fine with it!], but until then, just because something is complicated and identifying doesn’t mean it should be treated like fingerprints.

    1. From the linked article…

      “The finding is significant as mitochondrial DNA analysis was considered a proven enough technique that U.S. law enforcement has been using it as a tool to identify criminals since the mid-1990s. Mitochondrial DNA analysis was often used in the cases where the human DNA was too damaged for accurate processing (there’s numerous mitochondria in a cell, so there’s a better chance of accurately processing it).

      The new results, set to be published today in the Mar. 4 edition of the prestigious journal Nature, indicates that possibility of false negatives might be much higher than previously thought. Also, the chance of two people having the same mitochondrial DNA goes up as well.

      As Dr. Papadopoulos comments, “I wouldn’t say that it throws other results out the window, but it does throw a curve ball.”…..e17827.htm

      I don’t want my DNA going up in a database juries think is like fingerprints but is actually throwing curve balls.

      Like I said, the DNA database could be perfect; it’s the DNA at the crime scene I’d be worried about.

  14. hmmm. Doesn’t LSD scramble your DNA in high enough doses?

  15. Guess I will just have to grab a bag of hair clippings from the salon to through around when I commit a crime.

    DNA is a lot easier to overwhelm with false positives than a fingerprint, unless you go to the finger styling salon.

  16. I’m betting it starts in the schools. The courts have already ruled that students have a lower level of “Fourth Amendment” protection and as long as they don’t single out any one student mass searches can be performed without probable cause.

  17. Don’t worry. This important database will never ever be abused by Mississippi state Attorney General Hood.


  18. FFS, don’t model american law after the goddamn English.

    1. now that I read this it does seem kind of funny, but I think you know what I mean.

  19. Whether or not this would be a good idea (and I obviously don’t think it would be), the federal government has zero authority to collect and maintain a national database of DNA or fingerprints. Even leaving aside the fourth and fifth amendments for now, which of the enumerated powers grants the government the authority to do something like this?

    1. You make it a voluntary condition of getting a driver’s license or a passport or qualifying for Medicare or opening a bank account.

      Then it’s all “voluntary”. : (

      1. Tie it to one’s ability to work.

        There’s already talk about having a national work ID to prove you’re not an illegal alien. Just make the biometeric for the ID the person’s DNA.

  20. The most fair system would be to put everyone in jail. This would no doubt improve the quality of the inmate population, and lead to safer, more humane prisons.

  21. this is stupid

  22. I believe that a system that has every single individual under a specific database would not only quicken the solving of crimes, but also decrease the number of unsolved crimes due to the lack of suspects. The only problem that would standout would have to be the collecting process and the funds needed to produce such a system.
    If this were a problem not considering those problems I would think that the system would already be in motion.

  23. I think that a universal DNA databank would be great in helping convict criminals and deterring crime. I am curious as to how much this new system would cost. I imagine that it would be very expensive to get DNA from every person. I am also curious as to who would be paying for this new system. A universal DNA databank sounds like a great idea, but it does not seem like an idea that everyone would want to become a reality.

  24. Creating a universal DNA database seems like an ideal solution to solving crimes in a more efficient manner, however, only in a perfect society would the database function as Seringhaus suggests. Although I think a more widespread and generalized database would assist the police tremendously and positively decrease the profiling of criminals and their families, the idea that all of the DNA samples would be eliminated after being taken is extremely idealistic. Many problems could ensue with DNA samples being discovered later as intact. Furthermore, not every American or immigrant would agree to give such a sample due to a feeling of privacy invasion, keeping the database merely an unfinished project. The only other questionable aspect to creating such a database is who would be in charge of supplying the funding?

  25. wow…you make a pretty huge leap from “they’re just gonna swab your cheek” to “the government will demand an ID card and police will be checking you DNA regularly!”

  26. The Grim Sleeper was caught using this method.
    “The break in the case came after Franklin’s son was arrested and swabbed for DNA, said Alexander, who was given a briefing on the case by robbery-homicide detectives.”

    “Using a controversial technique known as a familial DNA search, the sample came back as similar to evidence in the serial killings, leading police to investigate relatives of the man who was arrested.”

    “Detectives later swabbed a cup used by Lonnie Franklin Jr. at a restaurant and confirmed his DNA matched that in the serial killings, Alexander said, citing his briefing by police. Two police officials confirmed Alexander’s account.”

  27. Yes DNA database has been very helpful in fighting against crime. DNA is the primary molecule of life which controls the development and progress of every living thing. DNA fingerprinting is a way to identify person through their DNA. It is helpful in discovering paternity or maternity, criminals or victims when there is no physical evidence out there. It is done through vein blood samples or the use of a heel prick.

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