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IP: Privacy Fears: FBI's DNA Database

From: [email protected]
Subject: IP: Privacy Fears: FBI's DNA Database
Date: Tue, 13 Oct 1998 08:54:57 -0500
To: [email protected]

Source:  San Jose Mercury News

Published Monday, October 12, 1998, in the San Jose Mercury News 

DNA database offers promise -- and privacy fears

New York Times 

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

The database, 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 database consists of 50 databases 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 database 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 database.

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.

Britain's experience

The crime-fighting potential of DNA databases is becoming
evident from the experiences of Britain, which started earlier and
has had fewer administrative and constitutional hurdles to
overcome. The database 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
database early you may prevent serious crime,'' said David
Werrett, manager of the DNA database for England and Wales.

The English DNA database 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 database now holds 360,000
entries and Werrett said he expected it would eventually include
one-third of all English males between 16 and 30, the principal
ages for committing crimes.

Werrett said the database 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 database,'' said Christopher Asplen,
executive director of the national Commission on the Future of
DNA Evidence.

One privacy safeguard

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 database. Under a new DNA profiling system known as
STRs, 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 databases 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 STRs.

Access to the DNA database 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
states differ on requiring samples from other groups such as
people convicted of violent felonies, juvenile offenders and

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.

Databases upheld

State laws establishing DNA databases 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

No state DNA database 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. 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 database.

When these teething problems are overcome, many experts
believe that the state and national DNA database systems may
have a significant effect, particularly in reducing crimes such as
rape that often involve repeat offenders. But like other experts
involved with DNA testing, Asplen 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. 
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