Whether it’s a good thing or not is debatable, but the truth of the matter is that Big Brother, a.k.a, the federal government, already has gathered a little too much info about us by snooping on our digital lives. Govt.-commissioned programs read our emails, scan our financial records, eavesdrop on our phone calls, track our digital footprints as we wander around the internet, and perhaps even quietly catalogue all the mostly irrelevant nuggets that we drop into our Facebook pages.
Now, it turns out, the government wants our DNA too.
It used to be that the only way that one’s DNA profile would show up in the federal DNA database, called CODIS, is if one had committed some heinous crime and had been convicted in the courts. So when cops got hold of a crime scene sample, they would run the DNA from the sample against known, profiled offenders—those who were actually included in CODIS because of a prior arrest or conviction.
But CODIS has now grown to include, disturbingly, the DNA profiles of the blood relatives of anyone ever arrested — so basically, the innocent relatives of suspected or proven criminals — because the feds have started using a couple of completely new procedures called “partial” and “familial” matching, which are currently unregulated or overseen by any law.
An article in Slate magazine, called O Brother, Where Art Thou? It’s time for legislators to look more closely at familial searches of DNA databases, has a very good explanation of the idea behind why the feds have taken this step. Here’s the relevant excerpt:
Familial searching and partial matching both exploit the same well-known underlying principle: Close relatives are genetically similar. Parents, children, and siblings share, on average, at least half of their DNA. Not surprisingly, similar DNA generates similar DNA profiles, which are the stripped-down numerical records stored in DNA databases. So, even if a crime-scene sample doesn’t exactly match any existing offender profile in CODIS, police may still find a partial match—an incomplete DNA match between the forensic evidence and a known offender. If this happens, police know the offender who partially matches the evidence did not himself leave the sample at the crime scene, but—and this is where it gets interesting—it’s very possible one of his relatives did. After screening those relatives with follow-up DNA testing, police may have a new lead.
At first glance, that sounds great, right? Sounds like DNA is merely doing its civic duty by helping cops catch the bad guys.
But what this also means is this:
If you’ve never been arrested, your DNA profile shouldn’t be in CODIS. But if your brother has been arrested and is profiled in CODIS, then whenever these new searches are used, you, too, may be searchable—and targeted for investigation—through the database.
The article goes to list all the law-related reasons why using this partial-match system is problematic. The bottom line is that this new expansion of CODIS searches is infringing on some rights and privacy statutes. So some laws will have to be re-written if this is all going to become legal and above-board.
The bigger message is that the government’s always going to be doing these types of law enforcement expansions in total stealth mode, and it’s up to the public and their constitutional defenders to drag such changes out into the daylight and force them to be regulated.