Crime fighting with DNA ‘family searches’

Ottawa River in pink and blue

Over at Slate, there is an interesting and somewhat frightening article about the use of DNA in law enforcement in the United States. As in the UK, the US is now collecting DNA from many people who have been arrested, and retaining the samples even from those never charged or convicted. The next step along this path of DNA surveillance seems to be ‘family searches.’ Here, police look for near matches between crime scene DNA and people in their database. When they find a near match, they investigate that person’s family members.

This is worrisome for many reasons. As the article explains, “courts could well be troubled by the open-ended idea that once you’re arrested and cleared, the state can subject you and future generations of your family members to permanent genetic surveillance.” It is quite shocking really. These days, people are getting arrested for such trivialities as taking photos of major landmarks. The idea that this would then subject their entire family to future police DNA surveillance seems deeply illiberal. The article also makes the point that the DNA kept on file may be re-examined later to test for other traits: for instance, if genes that predispose people to committing rape or murder are discovered. Finally, the article mentions some of the major racial implications of the policy: given the high rates of arrest and incarceration in the African American community, members of that ethnic group are unusually likely to be subject to police surveillance via family searches.

Maintaining a functioning justice system in an era of rapidly changing technologies is a huge challenge. Arguably, search and surveillance are the most worrisome new issues. The automation of both means that huge databases can be maintained tracking emails, cell phone locations, DNA, and much else besides. These databases will inevitably be accidentally leaked and intentionally abused. Just another reason why governments are far more dangerous than terrorists.

Given the popularity of being ‘tough on crime,’ it is easy to see why many people favour a system that sacrifices privacy in exchange to a higher chance of catching criminals. There are certainly arguments on both sides. DNA can help to free the wrongfully convicted, as well as increase the conviction rate for crimes like rape, when the justice system generally does a rotten job of catching perpetrators. Arguably, the fairest system would be to put everyone’s DNA on file. At least that way people would be receiving equal treatment. Of course, that requires putting even more trust and power in the hands of governments and security services that have too often abused it in the past.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

21 thoughts on “Crime fighting with DNA ‘family searches’”

  1. I was troubled by the unfairness referred to in the first part of the blog entry. Having DNA samples from everyone seems to offer a solution to unfairness. There may also be health and medical reasons to obtain DNA samples from everyone. I am OK with providing mine. I look forward to this discussion.

    (I also liked the photograph. What is the subject matter?)

  2. It’s the mission creep that is very worrisome here.

    As you identify, there is a great danger that there will be advances in how we can read DNA and the police will use them without prior legislative approval or much consideration of the ethics involved.

    Perhaps the abuse of power risk is so great that all DNA databases should be abandoned.

  3. (I also liked the photograph. What is the subject matter?)

    In most browsers, if you hover your mouse cursor over one of my photos of the day, a description of it will come up.

    Today’s shot is of the Ottawa river around sunset. The structure on the left is part of the largely-abandoned Domtar mill.

  4. It’s surprising fingerprinting hasn’t come up, as the parallels are clear.

    Anyway, I think this has little to do with DNA technology and everything to do with the American justice system.

  5. Fingerprints are quite different, since they cannot be connected between individuals.

    If someone gets arrested and their DNA gets added to a database, family searching means that record can be used to investigate anyone closely related to them.

  6. Also, while it is theoretically possible that genetic predictors for criminal behaviour will be found, no such information can be gleaned from fingerprints.

    In short, the prospects for abusing a DNA database are much worse than those for abusing a fingerprint database. A malicious insider with access to a DNA database could do all sorts of things: blackmail people who have children fathered by people other than their spouses, sell information on genetic conditions to drugmakers or insurers, or many other things.

  7. For this reason, Amar has argued, U.S. citizens should be compelled to donate their DNA to a universal database, as long as there are strict privacy controls. He would limit “testing to so-called junk DNA—parts of the DNA code that identify individuals without revealing other medicals facts” and “allowing the government to search the database only for important needs, as certified by a special DNA court.”

    This would presumably alleviate the concerns about investigating people’s genetics inappropriately. At least, it would if police sequenced the junk sections and discarded the original DNA sample when they finished.

  8. Tech Forensics in Guatemala Results in Groundbreaking Arrest for Decades-old Human Rights Crime

    By Xeni Jardin on politics

    A Guatemalan police officer has been arrested in connection with the abduction and disappearance 25 years ago of a labor activist named Edgar Fernando García, during Guatemala’s civil war — a period in which extrajudicial executions, dissapearances, and torture by government agents were widespread. The arrest on March 5 of former police officer Héctor Roderico Ramírez Ríos is the result of an investigation of García’s case by Guatemala’s Human Rights Prosecutor, and all of this was made possible by using records recently discovered among the massive archives of the former National Police.

  9. It’s not about being tough on crime, it’s about social control. Surveillance technology will always be advancing, but as a civilized society we do not need – and I would argue we do not want – our level of social control to keep pace with it. Criminals are just a handy excuse for introducing and implanting the technology in society. We’re on a very slippery slope.

  10. This discussion has focussed on the use of DNA for criminal investigation. Are there other uses of collection of DNA identification, especially in the area of health benefits which would support universal collection of DNA? For example can it or is it being used as a means to identify donors for blood marrow?

  11. Twins commit perfect heist?
    By Cory Doctorow on Science

    DNA evidence from a multimillion-euro jewelry heist in Berlin leads to twins with a criminal record, but since the evidence could point to either one, German law says that neither can be convicted:

    German law stipulates that each criminal must be individually proven guilty. The problem in the case of the O. brothers is that their twin DNA is so similar that neither can be exclusively linked to the evidence using current methods of DNA analysis. So even though both have criminal records and may have committed the heist together, Hassan and Abbas O. have been set free.

    Both brothers have stolidly refused to comment ever since their arrests on February 11. Since no further evidence has become available, police cannot detain them.

  12. Call to scrap ‘illegal databases’

    A quarter of all government databases are illegal and should be scrapped or redesigned, according to a report.

    The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust says storing information leads to vulnerable people, such as young black men, single parents and children, being victimised.

    It says the UK’s “database state” wastes billions from the public purse and often breaches human rights laws.

    But the government says the report contains “no substantive evidence” on which to base its conclusions.

  13. Time limits on innocent DNA data

    DNA profiles of up to 850,000 innocent people held among 4.5m on an official database are to be removed after a European Court ruling.

    But details of those cleared of crimes – or never even charged – will still be held for six years, or 12 in cases of serious violent or sexual offences.

    Rights groups say the plan is insulting to the ruling that the database in the UK – apart from Scotland – was illegal.

    Ministers argue the cuts are adequate, but say fewer crimes will be solved.

    One official estimate suggests there will be 4,500 fewer offences detected on average each year – rising to 26,000 if the proposals are extended to the policies on retaining fingerprints, as planned.

    Last year the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the database in England and Wales and Northern Ireland was illegal.

  14. O Brother, Where Art Thou?
    It’s time for legislators to look more closely at familial searches of DNA databases.
    By Natalie Ram and Michael Seringhaus
    Posted Monday, June 14, 2010, at 7:21 PM ET

    The U.S. forensic DNA database has expanded rapidly in recent years. While it was originally authorized to store the DNA profiles of only convicted violent felons, the FBI Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) now includes all federal offenders—including arrestees not yet convicted of any crime—as well as convicts from all 50 states and arrestees from many. Such expansions of the database are troubling, but at least they are explicit. More worrisome is the effective inclusion of many innocent individuals in the database, via novel and almost completely unregulated search techniques called “partial matching” and “familial searching.” By adopting one or both of these search techniques, some states are quietly expanding database coverage to “virtually” include the innocent relatives of profiled offenders—nearly always without any legislative oversight.

    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.

    This expanded process fundamentally alters the population that can be searched with DNA databases. Previously, police only matched crime-scene samples against known, profiled offenders—those who had been actually included in CODIS because of a prior arrest or conviction. (So a crime-scene sample left by a first-time offender would turn up no matches in the database.) But with these new techniques, relatives are effectively included in the database through their genetic similarity to a profiled offender. Think of it this way: 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. These searches render offenders’ relatives effectively searchable in CODIS, even though the relatives themselves have never been officially included.

  15. Familial DNA searches under scrutiny
    Monday, May 23, 2011
    By Douglas Quan, The Ottawa Citizen

    For two decades, a serial killer in South Los Angeles dubbed the “Grim Sleeper” eluded capture. Police had the suspect’s DNA, but couldn’t find a match in any databank.

    So last spring, they tried something new: Instead of looking for an exact match, they looked for a near match. Perhaps, they thought, that could at least lead them to a close relative of the culprit.

    They found a near match in the DNA of Christopher Franklin, a young man who had recently been convicted of a weapons charge. Police then began to follow Christopher’s father, Lonnie Franklin, and lifted his DNA from a discarded piece of pizza.

    Authorities say they got their match.

    California is one of a growing number of U.S. states using the controversial technique of familial DNA searching to solve rapes and murders. In fact, just this month, California’s attorney general announced new funding to double the number of searches. Britain has been doing it for years.

    Canada, however, has so far been reluctant to jump on board. Critics say proof of the technique’s effectiveness is still lacking and it is a terrible intrusion of privacy.

    Is it fair, they ask, for police to start quizzing convicted offenders about their relatives, turning them into unwitting “genetic informants”?

    Is it fair for the relatives who have now fallen under a cloud of police suspicion because of their kinship to the offenders?

    Critics also worry about the risk of inadvertently disclosing family secrets. What if police seek a DNA sample from a relative and it turns out they’re not a relative at all?

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