American forensic use of genetic databases—from the federally-run CODIS, to the public genealogy database GEDmatch—is nothing less than “haphazard and underregulated,” according to a new paper in Science.
A possible solution, according to academics: To put absolutely everyone in a “universal genetic forensic database” together.
“If correctly implemented, a universal database would likely be more productive and less discriminatory than our current system, without compromising as much privacy,” write the academics, from multiple departments at Vanderbilt University.
The paper is authored by lawyers and researchers in genetics and biomedical informatics at the school.
Their main contention is that the current way of genetic investigation is not centrally regulated.
Having everyone in the database, they argue, would essentially mean everyone is treated equally.
The cold-case solves and arrests made possible through forensic genealogy—which started grabbing headlines with the arrest of the accused Golden State Killer back in April—disproportionately focuses in on white people, and those from higher income brackets. Law-enforcement searches of direct-to-consumer databases like Ancestry or 23andMe will become more likely, since there is a low level of justification required for subpoenas, according to the legal experts.
On the flip side, government databases like CODIS collecting DNA from those only arrested or convicted of serious crimes “will be skewed against the disadvantaged because they are the ones most likely to be the focus of such convictions and arrests.”
If everyone is lumped together, such disparities disappear, the authors argue.
“The criminal stigma of being in a database is eliminated if everyone’s DNA is acquired,” they add.
The benefits of a universal database would be: better crime solving; less focus on “innocent people who happen to be related to criminals”; the potentially prohibiting of law enforcement from “trawling nongovernmental DNA sources such as GEDmatch”; and the aforementioned reduction in racial discrimination, according to the paper.
Precautions are necessary, the academics add. Expansion of the 20 core CODIS loci currently in use would be required. The genetic data should be wholly uncoupled from personal identifiers within the system, like it is in CODIS—but there should be an even more stringent “unmasking” process through legal procedures, the authors posit. Such a massive database should be kept separate at an independent agency, with access through only warrants, and also where more than one “turn (of) the key” would be required to get data. Penalties for violating the security of such a process should be stiff, they add.
Legislators would likely want to make sure this kind of repository is safe—and would likely want to ensure there is no “slippery slope” about government exploitation of genetic data, they add.
“That is because members of Congress would know that government DNA harvesting would no longer focus solely on out-groups but would also sweep in their own DNA,” they write.
The Vanderbilt academics argue something should change from the current arrangement of forensic DNA investigation.
“At the very least, putting the idea of a universal forensic database on the table would spur a long overdue debate about the deficiencies of the current system and, more broadly, our societal commitment to privacy fairness, and equal protection under the law,” write the four authors.
The universal DNA database, however, would not come easily—or cheaply. Based on the 2010 estimate of CODIS profiles (costing $20 to $40 per profile), collection of a U.S. population of approximately 350 million would cost anywhere between $7.5 billion and $15 billion. That figure also doesn’t include the “implementation costs,” including whether to start collecting only from newborns, or also mandating a “census-style effort.” Such implementation difficulties would also include what would prove to be an ample legal resistance likely to result from such a move.