Vast DNA Bank Pits Policing Vs. Privacy

By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 3, 2006

Brimming with the genetic patterns of more than 3 million Americans, the nation's databank of DNA "fingerprints" is growing by more than 80,000 people every month, giving police an unprecedented crime-fighting tool but prompting warnings that the expansion threatens constitutional privacy protections.

With little public debate, state and federal rules for cataloging DNA have broadened in recent years to include not only violent felons, as was originally the case, but also perpetrators of minor crimes and even people who have been arrested but not convicted.

Now some in law enforcement are calling for a national registry of every American's DNA profile, against which police could instantly compare crime-scene specimens. Advocates say the system would dissuade many would-be criminals and help capture the rest.

"This is the single best way to catch bad guys and keep them off the street," said Chris Asplen, a lawyer with the Washington firm Smith Alling Lane and former executive director of the National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence. "When it's applied to everybody, it is fair, and frankly you wouldn't even know it was going on."

But opponents say that the growing use of DNA scans is making suspects out of many law-abiding Americans and turning the "innocent until proven guilty" maxim on its head.

"These databases are starting to look more like a surveillance tool than a tool for criminal investigation," said Tania Simoncelli of the American Civil Liberties Union in New York.

The debate is part of a larger, post-Sept. 11 tug of war between public safety and personal privacy that has intensified amid recent revelations that the government has been collecting information on personal phone calls. In particular, it is about the limits of the Fourth Amendment, which protects people from being swept into criminal investigations unless there is good reason to suspect they have broken the law.

Once someone's DNA code is in the federal database, critics say, that person is effectively treated as a suspect every time a match with a crime-scene specimen is sought -- even though there is no reason to believe that the person committed the crime.

At issue is not only how many people's DNA is on file but also how the material is being used. In recent years, for example, crime fighters have initiated "DNA dragnets" in which hundreds or even thousands of people were asked to submit blood or tissue samples to help prove their innocence.

Also stirring unease is the growing use of "familial searches," in which police find crime-scene DNA that is similar to the DNA of a known criminal and then pursue that criminal's family members, reasoning that only a relative could have such a similar pattern. Critics say that makes suspects out of people just for being related to a convict.

Such concerns are amplified by fears that, in time, authorities will try to obtain information from stored DNA beyond the unique personal identifiers.

"Genetic material is a very powerful identifier, but it also happens to carry a heck of a lot of information about you," said Jim Harper, director of information policy at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington concerned about DNA database trends.

CONTINUED     1              >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company