July 13, 2013

Little debate on privacy as DNA collection flourishes

The trove of DNA now in official hands has alarmed privacy campaigners as well as some scientists.

By JILL LAWLESS/The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

Dr. Wasserstorm holds up blood samples in Tel Aviv
click image to enlarge

A scientist displays two DNA samples at a lab in Tel Aviv. Intensive DNA collection is taking place around the world, but relatively little debate is taking place over the ethical questions that are likely to arise.

Reuters

But dissenting Justice Antonin Scalia argued that it marked a major change in police powers. "Because of today's decision, your DNA can be taken and entered into a national database if you are ever arrested, rightly or wrongly, and for whatever reason," he said.

A similar note of caution has been struck by Alec Jeffreys, the British geneticist whose 1984 discovery of DNA fingerprinting revolutionized criminal investigations. He has warned that "mission creep" could see authorities use DNA to accumulate information on people's racial origins, medical history and psychological profile.

Erlich agreed that scenario was possible, if not likely.

"If it's not regulated and the police can do whatever they want ... they can use your DNA to infer things about your health, your ancestry, whether your kids are your kids," he said.

Police forces have already tracked down criminals through the DNA of their innocent relatives, a practice that is both a goldmine for investigators and, according to skeptics, an ethical minefield. Charles Tumosa, a clinical assistant professor in forensic studies at the University of Baltimore who is wary of the potential for genetic surveillance, says relatives of suspects could be identified through DNA and leaned on for information about their family members.

"There's got to be a debate," Tumosa said. "Nobody has talked this out.

"At what point do you say, enough is enough? Do we want to have a society where 5 percent of the crime is unsolved, or do we want to have a society where 100 percent of the crime is solved" but privacy is compromised. "What's the trade-off?"

And yet familial DNA searches have helped solve terrible crimes. In Kansas in 2005, police identified Dennis Rader as a serial killer known as "BTK" through his daughter's DNA obtained, without her knowledge, from a pap smear in her medical records.

Investigators in Massachusetts say advances in DNA technology may finally establish beyond doubt the perpetrator of the 1960s Boston Strangler slayings. On Friday, they exhumed the body of longtime suspect Albert DeSalvo -- who confessed to the crimes but was never convicted -- after DNA from one of the crime scenes produced a familial match with him.

Both supporters and critics of DNA databases point to Britain, where until recently, police could take the DNA of anyone 10 or older arrested for even the most minor offense -- and keep it forever, even if the suspect was later acquitted or released without charge.

Police say the database has helped solve thousands of crimes, including murders and rapes. On the other side of the coin are hundreds of thousands of innocent people, including children, who feel shamed and tainted by inclusion on a database of criminal suspects -- a status some legal experts say undermines the presumption of innocence.

"A lot of British people were very shocked to find themselves or their children ending up on the database for minor alleged offenses such as throwing a snowball at a car," said Helen Wallace, director of the privacy group GeneWatch, which campaigns for restrictions on collection of DNA and other personal information.

After a long legal battle, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2008 that Britain's "blanket and indiscriminate" storage of DNA violated the right to a private life.

The U.K. was forced to trim its huge database.

The U.K. government says the curbs have restored a sense of proportion to Britain's database, but some aspects of the country's genetic monitoring remain murky and the public debate is likely to resurface again.

 

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