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Editorial: Genetic Profiling; DNA Databases Go Local

Today’s reason for worrying about protecting privacy from government intrusion comes by way of the ever-expanding use of DNA analysis for crime detection.

No, we’re not talking specifically about the recent Supreme Court decision that allows police to collect DNA samples from those arrested but not yet convicted of serious crimes and use the information to try to solve unrelated crimes. Yes, that was troubling enough for those who believe the Fourth Amendment protects Americans from suspicionless searches, which is what such genetic fishing expeditions amount to. Rather, today’s concern is how that ruling may accelerate an activity that was already happening but was not widely known: the compilation of DNA databases by local law enforcement agencies.

The assumption that DNA information would be stored and analyzed only by centralized, sophisticated and regulated agencies — state police laboratories or the FBI — is wrong, it turns out. According to the The New York Times, at least 10 police departments and prosecutor’s offices have begun assembling their own databases, including New York City, Denver, the district attorney’s office in Orange County, Calif., and Bensalem Township, a Philadelphia suburb.

“In light of the Supreme Court decision, more and more organizations are going to be doing this,” Bensalem Public Safety Director Frederick Harran told the Times.

A major concern is the Wild West approach to how these local agencies are going about this sort of evidence gathering. While the Supreme Court sanctioned the use of DNA information collected from those arrested but not yet convicted of serious crimes for trying to solve other crimes, local police departments are going way beyond that. Some are collecting DNA samples from low-level offenders as part of a plea bargain or an agreement to drop charges. Others are collecting DNA from people who have been suspected of nothing — their genetic information is gathered at crime scenes in which they are not implicated or even in surreptitious testing of discarded trash.

Even victims might contribute to the databases. In Palm Bay, Fla., a city of about 100,000, for example, the police might ask a homeowner who has been victimized by a burglary if they can take a DNA sample to aid them in the analysis of other DNA evidence collected at the scene. Like all other DNA information collected by these departments, the genetic samples go into the databases and there they stay.

And thus the list of suspects for all future crimes continues to expand, presumably approaching the point of universality at some point in the future. The district attorney in Denver is an advocate of familial testing: He’s interested in using DNA collected at crime scenes to see if he can find out if someone left biological evidence who is merely related to people whose DNA profiles have been entered into that database.

And although DNA samples collected by law enforcement agencies are used to match identity, there’s much more information available in those genetic samples that is, or should be, highly confidential. It is not unrealistic to assume that DNA analysis will become steadily less expensive, making the tool available to smaller and smaller police departments — heightening concerns about what information may be gleaned from the samples and how well that information will be protected.

None of which is meant to challenge the usefulness of DNA evidence in criminal matters — not just as a powerful tool for proving guilt but also as a way to establish innocence. Just as few citizens would want to place this tool off-limits to the people in charge of protecting their safety, few would want it to be used without limits. What’s needed are rules that determine in what circumstances this evidence can be collected, how it can be used and how long it can be kept — something that, according to the Times, few states have.