Law-enforcement technologyInstant DNA analysis worries privacy advocates

Published 10 January 2013

In the past, it took weeks to analyze a person’s DNA, but with new technology it can take less than a day, and in most cases less than two hours; Rapid DNA analyzers can process a DN sample in less than ninety minutes; these machines, the size of a household printer, are now being marketed to local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies around the country; privacy advocates worry

In the past, it took weeks to analyze a person’s DNA, but with new technology it can take less than a day, and in most cases less than two hours.

Rapid DNA analyzers can process a DN sample in less than ninety minutes. These machines, the size of a household printer, are now being marketed to local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies around the country by  manufacturers such as IntegenX and NetBio. They say the machines will “revolutionize the use of DNA by making it a routine identification and investigational tool.”

 The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) says it has obtained documents which show that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the DHS Science and Technology Directorae are working with outside vendors  to develop a rapid DNA analyzer that can verify identities for refugee and asylum applications.

EFF notes that this is a sensitive subject since taking someone’s DNA  raises   privacy issues.

 

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stated in a 2008 report that DNA testing “can have serious implications for the right to privacy and family unity” and should be used only as a “last resort.” The UNHCR also stated that, if DNA is collected, it “should not be used for any other purpose (for instance medical tests or criminal investigations) than the verification of family relationships.”

According to USCIS documents, the agency wants to use Rapid DNA for more than just verifying refugee applications. The agency wants to collect DNA from all immigration applicants and store the samplesin the FBI’s criminal DNA database. The agency also wants to share the DNA among local, state, tribal, international, and other federal departments, in case an asylum seeker is a criminal or terrorist.

Another document obtained by EFF says that the intelligence community and the military have become interested in Rapid DNA in order to reveal the ethnicity, health status, age, and other factors of individuals of interest. At this time the analyzers are not set up to extract data to reveal that much information, but IntegenX officials said late last year that the machines can be set up to reveal the data.

It could take some time before Rapid DNA is used.  USCIS currently does not have authority to require DNA testing even if fraud is suspected. In order for that to happen, the agency would have to update its bylaws, which it has not done yet, although the topic is under discussion. Legal rules also prevent the FBI from using the machines to process data that will go into its Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) database.

These obstacles have not stopped Rapid DNA manufactures from marketing their products to local law enforcement agencies and promoting the idea that these agencie  create their own individual databases, instead of using the FBI’sCODIS.

DHS and USCIS have both stated that “DNA collections may create controversy.” A USCIS employee has advocated for “DHS,with the help of expert public relation professionals,” to “launch a social conditioning campaign” to “dispel the myths and promote the benefits of DNA technology.”

Another document stated that “If DHS fails to provide an adequate response to [inquiries about its Rapid DNA Test Program] quickly, civil rights/civil liberties organizations may attempt to shut down the test program.”

The biggest issues facing Rapid DNA is how the information will be collected, stored, and secured as well as who will have access to it. If each local law enforcement agency gets its own device and own database, it could make communication between agencies difficult and it could lead to people having to give samples to more than one agency. Also, standards have to be set on how long the information will be stored and how it will be secured.

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