Every living person has DNA. Even though humans share 99.9% of that DNA, that .1% in each person is enough to make us each unique. That uniqueness is also enough for the FBI to profile criminals. In 1998, the FBI introduced the National DNA Index System (NDIS) for law enforcement purposes1. This system is the FBI equivalent of similar systems that were being used by 41 states and Great Britain going back to seven years. Legally, the FBI can only catalogue DNA that’s been obtained from criminals, crime scenes, and unidentified human remains. This has proven to be an effective system in solving a number of crimes, but can it be an effective system in preventing future lawbreakers from causing harm?
The idea is that there can be a database that holds the DNA of every U.S. citizen from birth. Currently, genetic cataloguing is only permitted for the NDIS for criminal investigations, but there is potential for a system that documents the genetic code for each and every citizen. I see that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks in the idea of a public database. The system would function similar to current birth certificates and social security numbers. A newborn is processed at birth, and he or she can use that information later in life to prove he or she is a citizen. It’s only another form of documentation.
Although I find the benefits obvious, some people would be reluctant for such a system to exist. And they’re not wrong to be reluctant. A person’s DNA is his and his alone. Even if that person were to somehow clone himself, he and his clone would still be affected by epigenetics. This is information that a person may want to keep private. At the moment, unless that person is suspected of a crime, that information will be protected.
The key word there is suspected. The DNA databases currently in the world are mostly run by government agencies that are built around taking down criminals. They are able to gain access it an innocent person’s DNA with a warrant2. For instance, if a person is suspected of a crime, but the police can’t find enough evidence for a warrant, they can possible retrieve another warrant for a completely different crime and take that persons DNA. They can then use that DNA for the first case. The issue here is that innocent people will have their DNA in a system that’s shared with criminals. This may send the wrong message about a person if someone finds out that they’re in this database.
Currently, there are some policies to remove a person’s genetic information from a database3. In 2008, after a juvenile in the U.K. fought to have his information removed from a database, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that genetic information storage was a violation was a violation of privacy. The U.K. was required to purge the information from their database, with the conditions that people not convicted with DNA evidence have their information purged immediately and criminals have their information purged five years after a case.
The big problem with this case is that it only pertains to databases that collect criminal DNA, not that every citizen of a nation. People wouldn’t have their information automatically purged after a period of time. If anything, a public database would act similar to electronic medical records4. Currently, medical providers are switching to electronic systems to transfer medical data, and a big concern is how much control the patients have over this data. Anybody with permission to access the system can view this data. A public DNA database will behave similarly, giving access to genetic information to anyone with permission.
How easy would it be for a corporation to get permission for this system? If a drug company gained access, they would have the genetic records of everyone in the system’s country. They could then target individuals with ads based on the composition of their DNA. If a person’s DNA shares traits with other genetic information that indicates a person may have diabetes, that person may be spammed with adverts for blood strips and insulin.
And let’s say that everyone has access to the system, no matter who they are. Companies would obviously target everyone, but there is a more extreme example that could come out of this. There was a movie in 1997 called Gattaca that had a social class system based on DNA. People with “inferior DNA” are on the lower classes and people with “superior DNA” are on the upper classes. This is an extreme example, but some aspects may appear in the real world. Health insurance providers may base policies on genetic structure. People could look at your DNA to determine ethnicity, and may profile a person based off of it. Maybe in another extreme example, someone would base their decision to marry based on the partner’s genetic background.
The last examples may never happen, since a public DNA database would have to be absolutely public, allowing anyone to see information. But some fears of such a database can hold true. The major point to remember is that, similar to medical records and financial histories, a DNA database is a database of personal information. It can be beneficial for documentation, though it is a large chunk of information that some people may not be comfortable having stored in a single place. Genetic information is unique to every person, so it should be dealt with in a precious manner.