Paradoxes of DNA Databases

March 2, 2005
Doug Gavel

“Would you have wanted J. Edgar Hoover in charge of the country’s DNA database?” said David Lazer, associate professor of public policy and author of a new book, DNA and the Criminal Justice System.

Lazer, talking at a brown bag lecture sponsored by the Taubman Center and the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston, didn’t answer his own question, but did raise some interesting points as he and guest speaker Jarrett Barrios, a Massachusetts state senator and co-chair of the state’s Joint Committee on Public Safety, debated the growth of DNA databases worldwide — ten-fold in the United States in the past four years alone — and their potential for misuse.

“DNA is not a silver bullet,” Lazer said. “It will hopefully put a few more guilty people in jail and get a few more innocent ones out, but it will also create cases that are fuzzy.”

DNA, the material inside the nucleus of cells that carries genetic information that is unique to each person (except identical twins), has been used since the mid-1980s by criminal investigators to identify people who commit crimes and exonerate those who haven’t.

Lazer said that as databases grow, who is included in them has also broadened beyond those convicted of violent felonies, like rape and murder. People simply arrested for crimes are also being added.

“Who should be subject to surveillance? All felons? All suspects? Should we look at family members of people who have committed crimes?” he said. “This then leads to, why not everyone?”

Lazer said it’s not inconceivable that in the future, every baby would have a DNA sample taken after they’re born.

“It’s not likely to happen in the short run, but in the long run, anything can happen,” he said. “This would take care of the equity issue, but it also highly empowers the state.”

This sort of surveillance, he said, goes way beyond DNA. Cell phones users, for instance, are also having their whereabouts traced.

“They can track cell phone users near a crime scene. This would be very valuable in helping to solve crimes,” he said, “but do we want law enforcement to be able to do this? What do we want?”

Barrios said that when Massachusetts created a DNA law in 1997, they debated the balance between civil liberties and public purpose. The concerns, he said, included the right to be left alone, profiling, misidentification, and the misuse of DNA to frame people.
“I believe in the database," he said. "The ability to exonerate someone is incredible. But what this comes down to is, who are we going to database? There’s a trend by law enforcement to push for wider and wider inclusion, but there’s just not enough public policy debate on this yet.”

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