Expansion of FBI database holding DNA profiles debated

Proponents argue a universal database would assist law enforcement agencies.

The potential merits of expanding the FBI's DNA database to include all Americans were debated Tuesday at a seminar hosted by the National Academies.

The database currently holds the profiles of 2.8 million convicted offenders, according to the FBI. States also link their databases to the FBI's Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS.

The federal database does not include the names or other identifying information, CODIS chief Thomas Callaghan said. He said the software does not allow inputting that information. As of December 2005, the federal database has assisted in more than 30,000 investigations.

In recent years, it has been expanded to include the DNA of those who have been arrested or indicted. It also holds profiles for DNA collected at a crime scene, that of missing persons and human remains, as well as family members of missing persons. Last month, President Bush signed a law to include DNA of those "arrested or detained" by federal authority.

Furthermore, proponents argue that a universal database would assist law enforcement agencies.

The basic premise of the DNA database is to protect against, prevent and eliminate criminal activities, said James Hodge, an associate professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health and executive director of the Center for Law and the Public's Health. He said the argument to create a universal database is constitutionally sound.

Hodge further said there are ways to use the database to focus on suspects without creating an "intrusive dragnet," such as when the police sweep entire blocks near a crime scene to collect DNA. The potential benefits include more efficient identification of missing persons or would even reduce the costs associated with investigations.

Other non-traditional arguments, he said, would be to close the racial divide that currently exists within the database. The current portfolio makes it much more likely that a black person would be targeted as a suspect, he said.

He also argued that genetic data "is not all that different from other data" that is collected and that it should not be singled out as especially sensitive. On the privacy side, he said constitutional protection of DNA is "essential." He also said states should be required to destroy the DNA sample that is collected to create the profile.

Tania Simoncelli, a science and technology fellow at the American Civil Liberties Union, agreed that the samples ought to be destroyed. "Databases are not just databases but databanks," she said, citing examples of sample misuse in labs. Wisconsin is the only state with a law directing labs to destroy DNA samples.

But she argued against a universal database because it "would be unfeasible, undesirable and unconstitutional."

The cost to build the infrastructure and ongoing maintenance would render it impossible, she said. While DNA is a tool for criminal investigations and establishing innocence, Simoncelli said it does not actually require a database.

She also said it would not necessarily aid criminal investigations given the current backlog in criminal labs. In 2002, for each analysis completed, two investigations remained outstanding.

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