Federal DNA sampling

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WaPo reports on a Senate bill which would allow DNA collection of anyone who was arrested by Federal authorities. The ACLU offers an interesting objection:
"DNA is not like fingerprinting," said Jesselyn McCurdy, a legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. "It contains genetic information and information about diseases." She added that the ACLU questions whether it is constitutional to put data from those who have not been convicted into a database of convicted criminals.

The provision, co-sponsored by Kyl and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), does not require the government to automatically remove the DNA data of people who are never convicted. Instead, those arrested or detained would have to petition to have their information removed from the database after their cases were resolved.

Privacy advocates are especially concerned about possible abuses such as profiling based on genetic characteristics.

"This clearly opens the door to all kinds of race- or ethnic-based stops" by police, said Jim Dempsey, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a digital policy think tank.

This is certainly true if the way that you do this is to retain a DNA sample, but that's not the only way to build things. The way that DNA matching works is that you compare the pattern of specific base code sequences called Variable Number Tandem Repeats (VNTRs). If you record the VNTR pattern of a given sample, you should use the stored pattern to compare against the unidentified sample (you'd want to do this anyway to allow rapid search) and then discard the original sample. The VNTRs leak only a very small amount of information, so it's not clear how bad the privacy situation really is. I'd be fairly surprised if, for instance, it leaks information about diseases, though it's fairly possible that it leaks information about race. Of course, all this is predicated on the assumption that the samples are discarded after they are fingerprinted. It's not clear that that will be the case.

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2 Comments

I'd actually be surprised to see samples discarded. New techniques are developed, allowing for more testing and matching. And why discard anything, when storage is so cheap?

Adam,

I realize that what I wrote doesn't read like it, but I also expect they won't discard the samples. The point I was trying to make (badly) is that they *could* and if they did it would be a lot less invasive.

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