DNA profiling has radically changed forensics by providing an objectively verifiable method for linking suspects to crimes. Currently, many states collect the DNA of felons in order to ensure that repeat offenders are caught and convicted efficiently.1 Over the past few years, situations in which law enforcement officials can collect DNA from suspects have increased drastically. In 2013, President Obama strongly supported the creation of a national DNA database that included samples from not only people who are convicted, but also those arrested.1 In Maryland v. King (2013), the Supreme Court declared that law enforcement officials are justified in collecting DNA prior to conviction if it aids in solving a criminal case.2 In the years since this decision, the creation of a national DNA database has become a particularly polarizing and contentious issue. Proponents argue that a database would dramatically improve the ability of law enforcement to solve crimes. However, detractors argue that the potential for misuse of genetic information is too great to warrant the creation of such a system.
DNA is popularly referred to as the “blueprint of life” and contains extremely sensitive information such as an individual’s susceptibility to genetic disorders. One of the major arguments against the creation of a national DNA database is that such information could be hacked. Yaniv Erlich, a geneticist at MIT, illustrated this when he used “genome mining” to find the true identities of individuals in a national genome registry. In his study, Erlich obtained genomes from the 1000 Genomes Project, a large database used for scientific research. He then used a computer algorithm to search for specific DNA sequences known as short tandem repeats (STRs) on the Y chromosome of males. These STRs are remarkably invariable from generation to generation. Erlich was able to use the Y chromosome’s STR marker to identify the last names of the individuals to whom the DNA belonged by using easily accessible genealogy sites.3 With just a computer and access to genome data, Erlich could identify personal information in DNA registries. Clearly, the creation of a national DNA database could give rise to widespread privacy concerns. Though there are large fines associated with unauthorized disclosure or acquisition of DNA data, current federal regulations do not technically limit health insurance companies from using genome mining in order to determine life insurance or disability care.4
Hacking of federal databases is not an unreasonable scenario—just this past July, sensitive information including the addresses, health history, and financial history of over 20 million individuals was stolen in a massive cyber-attack.4 That attack uncovered information about every single individual who has attempted to work or has worked in the United States government. A similar abuse of genetic information by third parties is undoubtedly a danger associated with a national DNA database. Despite advances in federal protections such as the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, there are still numerous instances where genetic information regarding disease is used in employment decisions.5
Another potential issue associated with the creation of a DNA database is the notion of genetic essentialism. Genetic essentialism argues that the genes of an individual can predict behavioral outcomes.6 Critics of a national DNA database argue that certain factors—such as the extra Y chromosome—may lead law enforcement officials to suspect certain individuals more than others, which sets up a dangerous precedent.
The notion that chromosomal abnormalities can alter behavioral outcomes has generated numerous studies examining the link between criminality and changes in sex chromosomes—the genes that determine whether an individual is male or female. Normally, females will have two X chromosomes, whereas males have one X chromosome and one Y chromosome. However, in rare cases, males can either have an extra X chromosome (XXY) or an extra Y chromosome (XYY). General literature review suggests that XXY men have feminine characteristics and are substantially less aggressive than XYY or XY men.7 Conversely, studies like Jacobs et al. have suggested that the XYY condition can lead to increased aggression in individuals.8 However, Alice Theilgaard, one of the most prominent researchers on this topic, found that most behavioral characteristics associated with the XYY chromosomal abnormality are controversial.7 Even tests based on objective measures, like testosterone levels, have been inconclusive. Theilgaard argues that the XYY chromosomal abnormality does not cause increased aggression or propensity to commit crimes. Rather, she states that the criminality of XYY individuals might be a socially constructed phenomenon. XYY individuals often have severe acne, lowered intellect, and unusual height. This makes it difficult for people with this condition to “fit in.” As a result of their physical characteristics, XYY individuals might feel ostracized and become antisocial.8 Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that merely having an extra Y chromosome does not predispose someone to be violent; rather a wide variety of social factors play a role.
It is entirely plausible that law enforcement individuals could misinterpret genetic information. For example, they could mistakenly believe that an individual with the XYY condition is more likely to be a suspect for a violent crime. Such an assumption would hinder law enforcement officials from objectively evaluating the evidence involved in a crime and shift the focus to individual characteristics of particular suspects. People in favor of a national DNA database often argue that it would be a great method of solving crimes. Specifically, some officials argue that a database would prevent recidivism (a relapse in criminal behavior) and deter people from committing crimes. However, research done by Dr. Avinash Bhati suggests that the inclusion of DNA in a national registry only seems to reduce recidivism for burglaries and robberies; in other crime categories, recidivism is generally unaffected.9 This suggests that a convict’s knowledge that he/she is in a DNA database is not a true deterrent. The concerns raised by this study should show that databases might not be as effective a crime-fighting tools as proponents suggest.
Both genome mining and genetic essentialism present very real harms associated with the creation of a national DNA database. Having sensitive genetic information in one centralized registry could potentially lead to abuse and discriminatory behaviors by parties that have access to that information. Even if genome databases are strictly regulated, the possibility of that information being hacked still exists. Furthermore, assuming that genetics are the only determinants of behavior could lead to people with genetic abnormalities being suspected of crimes at a higher rate than “normal” individuals. Social factors often shape the way an individual acts; the possibility of law enforcement officials embracing the genetic essentialism approach is another associated harm. In the end, it seems that the negative consequences associated with the creation of a national DNA database outweigh the benefits.
- Barnes, R. Supreme Court upholds Maryland law, says police may take DNA samples from arrestees. Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/supreme-court-upholds-maryland-law-says-police-may-take-dna-samples-from-arrestees/2013/06/03/0b619ade-cc5a-11e2-8845-d970ccb04497_story.html (accessed 2015).
- Wolf, R. Supreme Court OKs DNA swab of people under arrest. USA Today, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2013/06/03/supreme-court-dna-cheek-swab-rape-unsolved-crimes/2116453/ (accessed 2015).
- Ferguson, W. A Hacked Database Prompts Debate about Genetic Privacy. Scientific American, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-hacked-database-prompts/ (accessed 2015).
- Davis, J. Hacking of Government Computers Exposed 21.5 Million People. The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/10/us/office-of-personnel-management-hackers-got-data-of-millions.html?_r=0 (accessed 2015).
- Berson, S. Debating DNA Collection. National Institute of Justice, http://www.nij.gov/journals/264/pages/debating-dna.aspx (accessed 2015).
- Coming to Terms with Genetic Information. Australian Law Reform Commission , http://www.alrc.gov.au/publications/3-coming-terms-genetic-information/dangers-‘genetic-essentialism’ (accessed 2015).
- Are XYY males more prone to aggressive behavior than XY males? Science Clarified, http://www.scienceclarified.com/dispute/vol-1/are-xyy-males-more-prone-to-aggressive-behavior-than-xy-males.html (accessed 2015).
- Dar-Nimrod, I.; Heine, S. Genetic Essentialism: On the Deceptive Determinism of DNA. Psychological Bulletin, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/pmc3394457/ (accessed 2015).Are XYY males more prone to aggressive behavior than XY males? Science Clarified.
- Bhati, A. Quantifying The Specific Deterrent Effects of DNA Databases. PsycEXTRADataset. 2011. https://www.ncjrs.gov/app/publications/abstract.aspx?id=258313 (accessed May 2015).