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IP: Tracking: NYT on FBI's Nat'l DNA Database

From: [email protected]
Subject: IP: Tracking: NYT on FBI's Nat'l DNA Database
Date: Mon, 12 Oct 1998 03:10:00 -0500
To: [email protected]

Source:  New York Times

October 12, 1998

F.B.I. Set to Begin Using National DNA Database


In a computer at a secret location, the FBI will open a national
DNA database on Tuesday that advocates say could significantly
reduce rape and other crimes by helping to catch repeat offenders earlier.

The data base, with a new generation of forensic DNA techniques,
promises to be so efficient that some civil libertarians fear it will be
expanded from people convicted of crimes to include almost everyone,
giving the government inordinate investigative powers over citizens. 

The national DNA data base consists of 50 data bases run by the states
but unified by common test procedures and software designed by the
FBI. As of Tuesday, it will be possible to compare a DNA sample from
a suspect or crime scene in one state with all others in the system. 

The national data base has been nearly a decade in the making. The final
pieces fell into place in June when Rhode Island became the last state to
set up a DNA data base. 

But the system still faces many unresolved issues, which are likely to play
out according to the reaction from the public and the courts. One such
issue is what types of offenders should be included. Another is whether
the mass screening of suspects' DNA will prove constitutional. 

DNA, the chemical that embodies a person's genetic programming, can
be found almost everywhere. People shed a constant torrent of dead skin
cells. Criminals leave blood when breaking and entering; they shed hair
and skin cells in fights, deposit saliva on glasses and leave sweat stains in
head bands. From only a few cells in such sources, enough DNA can be
extracted to identify the owner. A DNA database of sufficient size could
presumably help solve many crimes. 

The crime-fighting potential of DNA data bases is becoming evident from
the experiences of Britain, which started earlier and has had fewer
administrative and constitutional hurdles to overcome. The data base
there initially focused on sex offenses but has spread to include burglaries
and car theft because of the high number of DNA matches that police
forces were obtaining. Moreover, there was considerable crossover at
least in Britain, among different kinds of offenses. 

"People who commit serious crime very often have convictions for petty
crime in their history, so if you could get them on the data base early you
may prevent serious crime," said David Werrett, manager of the DNA
data base for England and Wales. 

The English DNA data base includes entries from crime scenes and from
everyone convicted of a crime, as well as from suspects in unresolved
cases. Since the system's debut in 1995, it has matched 28,000 people
to crime scenes and has made 6,000 links between crime scenes. The
data base now holds 360,000 entries and Werrett said he expected it
would eventually include one third of all English men between 16 and 30,
the principal ages for committing crimes. 

Werrett said that the data base has grown because police forces in
England, which pay $55 for a DNA analysis, are finding it cost effective.
Recently the Police Superintendents Association called for the entire
population to be DNA tested. 

Forensic use of DNA in the United States is unlikely to go as fast or as
far as in Britain. 

"Their system makes a tremendous amount of sense the way they
approach it, but in the United States we have a different perspective on
privacy and on the extent to which we would be willing to depend on a
data base," said Christopher Asplen, executive director of the national
Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence. 

One major privacy safeguard in the FBI's system is that only a minute
fraction of a person's genetic endowment becomes part of the data base.
Under a new DNA profiling system known as STR's, for short tandem
repeats, a person's DNA is tested at 13 specific sites at which a short
length of DNA is repeated in a kind of stutter. The number of repeats is
highly variable from one person to another, so that measuring the number
of repeats at the 13 designated sites gives a way of identifying each
individual with a probability of one in several billion. 

The blood or other samples donated by individuals are retained by the
states in collections known as DNA banks. All that goes into the
computerized DNA data bases is the set of 13 numbers from the STR
measurements. Only identifying information, and nothing about a person's
health or appearance, can be divined from the STR's. 

Access to the DNA data base is permitted only for law enforcement
purposes, with a $100,000 fine for unauthorized disclosures. No known
breaches of the system have occurred. 

One major unresolved issue is that of the types of offenders from whom
DNA profiles should be taken. All states require people convicted of
serious sexual offenses to donate blood samples, but differ on requiring
samples from other groups such as people convicted of violent felonies,
juvenile offenders and parolees. 

Four states -- Virginia, Wyoming, New Mexico and Alabama -- require
all people convicted of a felony to provide samples for DNA profiling.
Louisiana allows DNA to be taken from people merely arrested in a
crime, a practice that has not been tested in the courts. 

State laws establishing DNA data bases have been challenged in 13
jurisdictions and have been upheld in all but one, in Massachusetts. Some
states have revised their original legislation to add offenses. 

"I think the trend is that 10 years from now all felonies will be covered,"
said M. Dawn Herkenham, chief of the FBI's Forensic Science Systems
Unit in Washington. "We recommend that all violent felonies, burglaries,
juveniles and retroactivity for people on parole be included." 

>From his office in Birmingham, England, last week, Werrett said, "Today
we have issued matches on three murders, five rapes, nine serious
robberies, two abductions and two violent burglaries." 

No state DNA data base has acquired the critical mass to furnish such a
hit rate. Many state laboratories are understaffed and have large
backlogs of DNA samples to analyze. The backlogs are particularly
worrisome in the case of rapes where specimens may lie unanalyzed
while the rapist assaults more victims. "People may be appalled to know
how many rape suspect kits are out there untouched," Ms. Herkenham of
the FBI said. 

"The hit ratio depends on whether we can go back and examine all the
evidence that comes in the door," said Dr. Barry Duceman, director of
biological science in the New York State Police Forensic Investigation
Center in Albany. "We are trying to address a crushing case backlog and
to get the technology on line -- you'd be hard pressed to say we are

The case backlog problem is compounded because state laboratories are
switching to the STR method of DNA profiling from an older method of
analysis called RFLP (for restriction fragment length polymorphism). All
the samples analyzed by RFLP must be redone by STR if they are to be
searchable in the new data base. 

When these teething problems are overcome, many experts believe that
the state and national DNA data base systems may have a significant
effect, particularly in reducing crimes like rape that often involve repeat
offenders. By scoring a "cold hit" between crime scene data and a
person, DNA data bases can be particularly effective in solving cases
with no suspects. 

"Once we get that infrastructure in place and start getting those hits, the
benefits will lead to higher utilization," Asplen said. 

But like other experts involved with DNA testing, he expressed concern
that DNA profiling be developed in a publicly acceptable way. "The
public does need to have a trust level with this and be assured that law
enforcement is not going to abuse this powerful tool," he said. One
practice likely to raise eyebrows, if not hackles, is mass screening, which
is widely used in the United Kingdom but not yet commonplace here. 

In high profile crime cases, police in Britain often ask, and can require, all
members of a town or building to give DNA samples so as to prove
themselves guiltless and help narrow the search for the culprit. The
National Commission on the Future of DNA Testing is examining under
what circumstances the donation of samples can be considered voluntary.
In an office, where employees who declined to donate a sample might be
fired, a police request for DNA might be coercive. 

A future use of DNA testing is that of phenotypic analysis. It will soon be
technically possible to infer from the genes in a person's DNA many
probable aspects of their appearance, such as hair, skin and eye color.
Werrett said the main problem with such predictions would lie in training
police to understand their probabilistic nature: told there is a 90 percent
chance that the suspect has red hair, investigators should not ignore the
10 percent chance that he does not. 

DNA reveals so much about a person that behavioral geneticists might
wish to search through state data banks for genetic variants linked to
criminal behavior. Most states say their DNA data banks can be
accessed only for law enforcement purposes, like the data bases. But
Alabama authorizes the use of its samples for "educational research or
medical research or development," an apparent invitation to genetic

An impending issue is whether states should retain their DNA samples
once the information has been entered into the DNA data base. Forensic
managers like to retain samples as a hedge against changing technology.
Others say the DNA sample banks create an opportunity for abuse, and
that if there is another change in technology the government should just
rebuild its data base from scratch. 

Because DNA can be found at so many crime scenes, DNA data bases
promise to be powerful aids in catching criminals. But what thrills forensic
experts tends to chill civil libertarians. 

"The DNA data base started out with pariahs -- the sex offenders -- but
has already been enlarged to include other felons and will probably be
extended to include everyone, giving elites the power to control 'unruly'
citizens," said Philip Bereano a professor of technology and public policy
at the University of Washington in Seattle. 

Dr. Eric Juengst, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University in
Cleveland and a member of the FBI's DNA Advisory Board, said the
original policy in setting up the DNA data base was that it was "suitable
only for our most serious category of criminals," and that it would be a
breach of that policy to expand its scope. 

The risks raised by Bereano are worth watching, Juengst said, "but as a
society we have to learn how to control powerful tools of all kinds, like
nuclear power. I don't see it as an endless slippery slope." 

 Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company
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