Saturday, May 20, 2006

A DNA database nation?   posted by the @ 5/20/2006 02:27:00 PM

Ron Bailey has an article in Reason, Slouching toward a DNA database nation. I would like to argue that becoming a DNA database nation is not in itself a bad thing, and that there are better and worse ways to go about doing it.

First, what information is in a DNA database? From what I can tell, most DNA profiling is based on STR (short tandem repeat) sequences. There are something like 13 to 18 standard STRs that are typed. Each STR is a unique locus in the genome (like a gene) that has variant alleles; most have from 15 to 50 alleles. Genotyping this panel arguably produces a uniquely identifying signature, which can also be used to infer close kinship relationships, such as paternity.

The obvious applications of such a database are identifying the source of biological (crime-scene or disaster) samples and establishing kinship (paternity). The largest such databases are related to law enforcement (the FBI), and most individuals in the database were sampled at arrest or conviction. DNA samples can be collected non-invasively, and commercial platforms exist for high-throughput genotyping.

Privacy is the primary concern surrounding the existence of such databases. Civil libertarians imagine a variety of misuses for such databases. Without bothering to list them, I will say that I am sympathetic to some of these concerns. However, I think the solution is obvious: add everyone to the database. This has a number of advantages:

* barring technical problems, samples would always be matchable to their source
* finding an individual in the database would no longer imply that they had a criminal record
* the possibility of two individuals having the same profile can be known empirically
* paternity can be known for all children
* the temptation for police to perform DNA dragnets will be eliminated

Let me suggest further refinements: make the profiles anonymous to government authorities until a warrant is granted on the basis of judge finding that the DNA sample was acquired legally (or something like that). Also, destroy the samples after the profile is created.

I am skeptical about the intermediate-term prospects of Gattaca-like fast DNA profiling for identity verification. However, it might be possible to get next-day identity verification for things like bank loans, drivers license renewals, etc.