DNA database controversies
DNA database controversies (Forensic Science)
Each person has a unique DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) profile that may be used to identify that individual. DNA samples, however, may also be used for other purposes; a person’s DNA can reveal susceptibility to certain diseases, for example, or predisposition to certain behaviors. The establishment of DNA databases has helped law-enforcement agencies greatly in identifying suspects, but many observers have expressed concerns regarding the potential for misuse of the information stored in these databases.
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DNA Dragnets and Fourth Amendment Issues (Forensic Science)
After serious crimes have been committed, law-enforcement agencies sometimes conduct so-called DNA dragnets to attempt to identify suspects; that is, they obtain DNA samples from all persons in selected groups of individuals to compare with DNA found at the crime scenes. In these cases, the people involved are generally pressured to “volunteer” DNA samples or the samples are taken without due process. In one case, all men in Truro, Massachusetts (a town with a population of approximately eighteen hundred), were requested to volunteer DNA samples after a murder. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, samples were collected from about twelve hundred men during a hunt for a serial killer. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects against unreasonable searches and seizures, and it has been argued that such collection of DNA samples without probable cause (a reasonable belief that the individuals have some involvement with the crimes) may constitute “unreasonable search” under the Fourth Amendment. It is likely that this issue will ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The DNA profiles produced as a result of DNA dragnets are usually entered into state criminal databases. In most cases, removal of a profile from such a database requires a court order. In some states, including Virginia and Louisiana, the DNA profiles of any individuals who are arrested, even if they are not convicted,...
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Familial Issues (Forensic Science)
People who are related by blood have similar, but not identical, DNA profiles. Given this fact, law-enforcement agencies sometimes search DNA databases for less-than-perfect matches to their suspects’ DNA profiles; this is known as familial searching. By finding first-degree relatives, the police may identify suspects. Such searches have been criticized as violating the privacy rights of the parties involved; they have yet to be tested in the courts. Familial searching has also been criticized as racially discriminatory. For instance, because African Americans are disproportionately represented in CODIS, they are approximately four times more likely than Caucasians to be “findable” through familial searching.
In addition to the use of DNA databases by law-enforcement agencies, the storage of DNA profiles in such repositories raises many other issues, particularly in the areas of privacy and confidentiality. Information on adoption and sperm and egg donation, for example, can be very sensitive, with many parties wishing to remain anonymous. Such anonymity is threatened by the placement of DNA profiles in searchable databases.
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Universal Databases and Discrimination (Forensic Science)
By 2007, nine countries had established population-based DNA databases as resources for the study of genealogy and gene-disease relationships. In some nations, initiatives have been undertaken to include DNA profiles of all newborns in these databases. The storage of this information may be useful to scientists who seek to understand the genetic components of disease, but it raises issues of privacy and confidentiality. Of particular importance is the question of who has the right to access the data. In the United States, the courts have yet to decide whether DNA database information falls under the security and privacy provisions of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996.
It has been argued that universal DNA databases and disease gene databases have great potential for abuse. Disease genes are being identified at an increasing rate, and screening for many such genes is becoming easier and cheaper. In addition to government databases, private DNA databases are being established, and these pose additional issues of confidentiality because they contain more detailed information than that found in the government databases and so will be less likely to protect individuals’ anonymity. As critics have pointed out, the availability of information on individuals’ genetic characteristics has the potential to lead to discrimination by insurance carriers, employers,...
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Retention of DNA samples (Forensic Science)
A DNA profile only identifies the individual. The genetic markers used are short tandem repeat (STR) regions of the genome where there are variable numbers of certain DNA segments. These regions do not encode functional genes, so a person’s DNA profile does not contain information on the individual’s genetic makeup. In contrast, the DNA sample from which the profile was created contains all of that person’s genetic information. Most U.S. states do not have laws that require the destruction of DNA samples after DNA profiling is complete.
Moreover, hospitals, clinics, and doctors’ offices store tissue samples taken for biopsies or retained for research from which DNA may be extracted and analyzed. No set policy exists among forensic laboratories regarding destruction of DNA samples, and many preserve such samples in case additional testing is deemed necessary or the results of previous tests need to be confirmed. It has been argued that government agencies have not adequately regulated the retention and future potential uses of such DNA samples.
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Further Reading (Forensic Science)
Greeley, Henry T. “The Uneasy Ethical and Legal Underpinnings of Large-Scale Genomic Biobanks.” Annual Review of Genomics and Human Genetics 7 (2007): 343-364. Discusses the various issues related to the existence of private databases that contain genetic information on individuals.
Lazer, David, ed. DNA and the Criminal Justice System: The Technology of Justice. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004. Collection of essays explores the ethical and procedural issues related to DNA evidence. Includes a chapter by Associate Justice Stephen G. Breyer of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Moulton, Benjamin W. “DNA Fingerprinting and Civil Liberties.” Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics 34 (Summer, 2006): 147-148. Presents an overview of the issues addressed at a symposium on the topic of DNA fingerprinting and civil liberties. Contributions to the symposium appear as articles in the same issue of the journal.
Swede, Helen, Carol L. Stone, and Alyssa R. Norwood. “National Population-Based Biobanks for Genetic Research.” Genetics in Medicine 9, no. 3 (2007): 141-149. Focuses on the ethics issues related to the establishment of national genetic databases.
Weiss, Marcia J. “Beware! Uncle Sam Has Your DNA: Legal Fallout from Its Use and Misuse in the U.S.” Ethics and Information Technology 6, no. 1 (2004): 55-63. Discusses the constitutionality of DNA profiling....
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