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IP: ISPI Clips 5.35: F.B.I. Set to Begin Using National DNA Database
From: "ama-gi ISPI" <[email protected]>
Subject: IP: ISPI Clips 5.35: F.B.I. Set to Begin Using National DNA Database
Date: Tue, 13 Oct 1998 00:39:34 -0700
To: <[email protected]>
ISPI Clips 5.35: F.B.I. Set to Begin Using National DNA Database
News & Info from the Institute for the Study of Privacy Issues (ISPI)
Tuesday October 13, 1998
This From: The New York Times, October 12, 1998
F.B.I. Set to Begin Using National DNA Database
"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."
n 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
"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 inquiry.
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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