Science & Technology Law

Familial DNA Searches Are Creating Genetic Informants


As DNA databases expand and more and more states adopt strategies for hunting down suspects by tracing the genes of their relatives, privacy advocates are sounding alarms.

They argue that the increasing use of familial DNA is placing an entire class of people under greater scrutiny because their relatives committed crimes, the Washington Post reports in a lengthy article about the issue.

“The idea of holding people responsible for who they are rather than what they’ve done could challenge deep American principles of privacy and equality,” says Jeffrey Rosen, a George Washington University law professor. “Although the legal issues aren’t clear, the moral ones are vexing.”

In addition to using DNA collected for a purpose not intended, privacy advocates note that DNA databases are disproportionately comprised of minorities.

“If practiced routinely, we would be subjecting hundreds of thousands of innocent people who happen to be relatives of individuals in the FBI database to lifelong genetic surveillance,” Tania Simoncelli, science adviser to the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Post.

Despite these concerns, California, which maintains the third-largest criminal DNA database in the world, will soon adopt a familial search protocol. Many other states will likely follow, with Maryland the only firm holdout to date. While Maryland is expanding its DNA database to include anyone charged with a violent crime, it has expressly banned familial searching.

The FBI, which maintains the world’s largest DNA database with 6 million profiles, also is holding off on conducting formal familial searches for fear of constitutional challenges.

“The FBI would be more comfortable with congressional authorization to conduct familial searches,” the Post quoted Thomas Callaghan, head of the FBI’s national DNA database, as saying.

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