Are We Ready for Genetic Mug Shots?

May 26, 2010

By an overwhelming majority, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill last week that would provide payment incentives for states to collect genetic material — by force, if necessary — from individuals arrested for certain crimes, regardless of if they are formally charged or convicted. Declan McCullagh at CNet News explains “Katie’s Law” in-depth, and also provides a brief history of related legislation in the U.S. and the U.K.

What is apparent from McCullagh’s synopsis is that The Katie Sepich DNA Collection Act of 2010 is only the latest in a series of laws and judicial rulings that are eroding genetic privacy in the interest of law enforcement.

There is a well-established tradition in the life sciences that human subjects must voluntarily provide any of their cells that researchers wish to collect and study. Ethically, this derives from a respect for a patient’s autonomy and bodily integrity. While one could argue that convicted criminals have forfeited their right to autonomy by breaking the law, this reasoning does not apply to those merely suspected of committing a crime. If genetic privacy and bodily integrity can be disregarded for the purposes of law enforcement, the precedent is set for DNA collection to be viewed as another type of police mug shot, despite there being substantial ethical differences.

There are two related concerns that surface as our society becomes both more reliant on genetic information and more adept at using it. First, what data will be stored and for how long? And second, how do we safeguard against “genetic profiling” or other abuses?

Currently, an entry in the FBI’s national DNA database, CODIS, is only an abridged profile of a person’s genome. With genetic sequencing rapidly becoming more affordable, though, it is conceivable that in the near future CODIS may store an individual’s entire DNA sequence indefinitely. In this scenario, what if a person’s DNA revealed a genetic predisposition for violence, or showed that he or she was related to other registered offenders in the CODIS database? As a society, are we ready for “genetic mug shots” to become commonplace, or will such details encourage prejudice and corrupt justice?