Big Brother’s National DNA Database: Another Orwellian Threat To Civil Liberties

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State law enforcement officials and the FBI have invested a significant amount of resources on creating a national DNA database under the guise of solving more crimes. In reality, the creation of such a database is another example of the government posing a threat to our civil liberties, and continues our country’s trajectory towards an Orwellian police/surveillance state. While some may have genuine interests in keeping track of sex offenders and other violent criminals, the state has its own ulterior motives – namely, the tracking and surveillance of its citizens.

In May 2009, the number of individuals included in the national DNA database (CODIS – Combined DNA Index System) vastly increased thanks to a decision by the FBI and 15 states to include DNA samples from individuals awaiting trial. Previously, the federal government only collected genetic samples from individuals who were actually convicted of a crime. The FBI expected its database, which contained approximately 6.7 million genetic profiles prior to its decision to expand the number of individuals eligible for inclusion, to accelerate its growth rate from 80,000 new entries a year to 1.2 million by 2012 — a 15-fold increase, according to The New York Times.

President Barack Obama endorsed the collection of DNA samples of individuals arrested, but not necessarily convicted of a crime, during an appearance on “America’s Most Wanted” with John Walsh.

Obama’s decision to embrace the practice disappointed many who support criminal justice reform. According to Politico, “President Barack Obama’s embrace of a national database to store the DNA of people arrested but not necessarily convicted of a crime is heartening to backers of the policy but disappointing to criminal-justice reformers, who view it as an invasion of privacy. Others also worry the practice would adversely affect minorities.”

“We have 18 states who are taking DNA upon arrest,” Walsh said. “It’s no different than fingerprinting or a booking photo. … Since those states have been doing it, it has cleared 200 people that are innocent from jail.”

President Obama agreed. ““It’s the right thing to do,” he replied. “This is where the national registry becomes so important, because what you have is individual states — they may have a database, but if they’re not sharing it with the state next door, you’ve got a guy from Illinois driving over into Indiana, and they’re not talking to each other.”

In a move dubbed “the most massive expansion of biometric state surveillince since the invention of the fingerprint” according to Privacy SOS, the FBI launched a one billion dollar biometrics database known as Next Generation Identification in late 2014. Moving beyond strictly genetic samples, the FBI has encouraged local and state law enforcement agencies to submit faceprints, fingerprints, retina scans, and photos of scars and tattoos to the national database.

“The FBI has big goals when it comes to biometric databases, but they can’t achieve them without the active buy-in and assistance of state and local police. That’s part of the reason why Department of Justice and Homeland Security grant programs have paid for state and local police nationwide to purchase biometric capturing and processing technologies.”

Now, law enforcement agencies are seeking to move beyond national databases and acquire DNA information from companies that provide ancestry information to customers. The two companies, Ancestry.com and 23andme.com, reported five requests from law enforcement agencies for genetic material of six individuals. “Ancestry.com turned over one person’s data for an investigation into the murder and rape of an 18-year-old woman in Idaho Falls, Idaho. 23andme has received four other court orders but persuaded investigators to withdraw the requests.”

The case from Idaho Falls is particularly disturbing. Michael Usry, a New Orleans filmmaker, was suspected of committing the 1996 murder of 19 year old Idaho Falls teenager Angie Dodge. When a DNA test cleared a man previously convicted of the crime, police ran a familial DNA search, a technique that allows investigators to identify suspects who don’t have DNA in a law enforcement database but whose relatives have had their DNA cataloged.

According to Wired, “In Usry’s case the crime scene DNA bore numerous similarities to that of Usry’s father, who years earlier had donated a DNA sample to a genealogy project through his Mormon church in Mississippi. That project’s database was later purchased by Ancestry, which made it publicly searchable—a decision that didn’t take into account the possibility that cops might someday use it to hunt for genetic leads.”

Ursy was subsequently cleared after waiting 33 days for the results of his own DNA test. Erin Murphy, a professor at the New York University School of Law, said in The New Orleans Advocate it was the first case she has seen in which law enforcment used a publically accessible database rather than a private law enforcement database to obtain a lead in an investigation.

“I think what we’re looking at is a series of totally reasonable steps by law enforcement,” Murphy said. “But it has this really Orwellian state feeling to it, and it is a huge indictment of private genetic testing companies and the degree to which people seamlessly share that information online.”

The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia made note of his concern over the creation of an all-encompassing DNA database in his dissent in the case of Maryland v. King. “Make no mistake about it: As an entirely predictable consequence of today’s decision, your DNA can be taken and entered into a national DNA database if you are ever arrested, rightly or wrongly, and for whatever reason.”

Clifford Cunningham is an amateur writer from Greater Boston dedicated to defending and promoting Libertarian and Constitutionalist ideals. He served two terms as a City Councilor in his hometown of Chelsea, leaving office in January, 2016.