National DNA database: Sound policy?

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.






Week 4 News Digest

Petition calls on Obama stop intimidation of journalists and whistleblowers

Monday 8 September

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) launched a petition demanding limitations to the surveillance of journalists. They have three key components to their petition, including the prohibition of the hacking and surveillance of journalists and media organizations, the limitations of prosecutions of journalists and whistle blowers, and the termination of harassment of journalists along the US border. They were prompted to do this from evidence from the documents leaked by Edward Snowden, which reported that US and allied intelligence agencies were targeting various news organizations for surveillance. Many journalists have signed the petition, including journalists from CNN, Fox News, Associated Press, and Pen International.

Five Eyes spy pact: Transparency challenge lodged at European rights court

Tuesday 9 September

The Five Eyes spy pact that authorizes the sharing of intelligence between Britain, America, Australia, Canada and New Zealand should be made transparent, according to an appeal launched at the European Court of Human Rights. The pact outlines the collaborations between the security agencies of multiple countries and how they pass on information. The Privacy International group (PI) issued an appeal to make it transparent this Tuesday. Currently the countries that are part of the Five Eyes pact share the information of citizens around the world constantly. If the appeal goes through, then the rules of the Five Eyes pact and how they deal with this information shall be made transparent.

U.S. threatened Yahoo with $250,000-a-day fine for withholding user data

Thursday 11 September

Yahoo! Inc claimed that the government of the U.S. threatened them in 2008 of a fine of $250000 a day in they didn’t comply with national security requests for user’s data. Yahoo challenged the NSA’s requests in court in 2007, and the documents of the case have been released today. They were the only company to refuse the requests in that era, choosing to fight against the requests instead of compromising the security of their users. The case was held in at the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which usually keeps all its cases secret. Even with the recent declassification of the case, portions of the documents remain sealed and classified.

City used high-tech tracking software at ‘13 Boston Calling

Monday 8 September

The city of Boston spent $650,000 to test surveillance software during last year’s Boston Calling music festival, using the technology to record the crowds of concertgoers without their knowledge. Boston was testing the software provided by IBM called “situational awareness” software that can use existing cameras. The city of Boston confirmed the use of the software when a journalist found documents from the project off the internet, which was uploaded by an IBM employee to a public server. The city is unclear if the software is impractical, however Boston remains interested in the practical use of the product. Situational awareness software is supposed to analyze video and indicate if an event of urgency is occurring.

Redactions in U.S. Memo Leave Doubts on Data Surveillance Program

Tuesday 6 September

The U.S. Justice department has recently declassified a memo from 2004 that approved surveillance and data collection activities for the NSA. The activities regard the Stellarwind program, a secret program instated by George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks. The Obama administration voluntarily released the memo. A version was released in 2011 that was more heavily redacted, but this version still contains several other redactions as well. Some instances of core censored information from the memo include reasons for why the Justice Department made recording bulk emails from citizens illegal but permitted warrantless wiretapping and collection of phone records. The operations of the phone collection became public in December 2005, but the email operations didn’t until the Snowden Leak.