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Vast DNA Bank Pits Policing Vs. Privacy
Law enforcement officials say they have no interest in reading people's genetic secrets. The U.S. profiling system focuses on just 13 small regions of the DNA molecule -- regions that do not code for any known biological or behavioral traits but vary enough to give everyone who is not an identical twin a unique 52-digit number.
"It's like a Social Security number, but not assigned by the government," said Michael Smith, a University of Wisconsin law professor who favors a national database of every American's genetic ID with certain restrictions.
Still, the blood, semen or cheek-swab specimen that yields that DNA, and which authorities almost always save, contains additional genetic information that is sensitive, including disease susceptibilities that could affect employment and health insurance prospects and, in some cases, surprises about who a child's father is.
"We don't know all the potential uses of DNA, but once the state has your sample and there are not limits on how it can be used, then the potential civil liberty violations are as vast as the uses themselves," said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts.
She and others want samples destroyed once the identifying profile has been extracted, but the FBI favors preserving them.
Sometimes authorities need access to those samples to make sure an old analysis was done correctly, said Thomas Callaghan, who oversees the FBI database. The agency also wants to be able to use new DNA identification methods on older samples as the science improves.
Without that option, Callaghan said, "you'd be freezing the database to today's technology."
Over the past dozen years, the FBI-managed national database has made more than 30,000 "cold hits," or exact matches to a known person's DNA, showing its crime-fighting potential.
In a recent case, a Canadian woman flew home the day after she was sexually assaulted in Mexico. Canadian authorities performed a semen DNA profile and, after finding no domestic matches, consulted the FBI database. The pattern matched that of a California man on probation, who was promptly found in the Mexican town where the woman had been staying and was charged by local authorities.
Congress authorized the FBI database precisely for cases like that, on the rationale that sexual predators and other violent felons tend to be repeat offenders and are likely to leave DNA behind. In recent years, however, Congress and state legislators have vastly extended the system's reach.
At least 38 states now have laws to collect DNA from people found guilty of misdemeanors, in some cases for such crimes as shoplifting and fortunetelling. At least 28 now collect from juvenile offenders, too, according to information presented last month at a Boston symposium on DNA and civil liberties, organized by the American Society of Law, Medicine and Ethics.
The federal government and five states, including Virginia, go further, allowing DNA scans of people arrested. At least four other states plan to do so this year, and California will start in 2009.