Sunday, March 18, 2007

De facto universal DNA database   posted by the @ 3/18/2007 01:04:00 PM

I've previously argued for the expansion of DNA databases to universal coverage. The reasoning being in part that all-or-nothing coverage is in many ways preferable to the patch-work system now in place. I'm not alone in making this argument, and I find it comforting that most authors commenting on this subject agree that some kind of changes are needed. The consensus of most commentary is that greater legislative regulation and oversight is needed regardless of what direction we take.

Making action on this issue more urgent, several developments have occurred which bring us to a situation where de facto universal coverage seems likely to occur merely as an extension of current policy (without further legislative action). The first development is the finding that the STR profiles currently used in law-enforcement DNA databases are good enough to allow identification first-degree (and even second-degree) relatives in a substantial percentage of cases. While there are technical limitations to this approach, this development has the net effect of significantly expanding the number of individuals who are identifiable. The second development is one of law-enforcement technique -- the surreptitious collection of discarded DNA from targeted individuals. Regardless of the legality of individual methods used, it seems inevitable that certain forms of surreptitious collection will be legally permissible. This has the net effect of making any targeted individual's DNA open to law enforcement without a court order. Lastly, the pace of development of genotyping technologies is quickly bringing us to a point of virtually-limitless genotyping capacity. The possibilities of surreptitious DNA collection that this will open up are limited only by imagination (and the cost of human labor).

All of these developments point towards a situation where a de facto universal DNA database (or a functional near-equivalent) will develop even in the absence of any changes in legislation. This appears to be a largely-unexamined issue, but it seems to call for debate and legislative action.