By Bob Barr
The chemical DNA — or as it is more scientifically but less-commonly known, deoxyribonucleic acid — was first discovered in 1869 by a Swiss chemist. Now, 150 years later, DNA has become for government what the dog is to man — its “best friend.”
Government is working feverishly to take full advantage of the power of this chemical — which provides the basis for human genetics — as a means to surveil its citizens. Arizona is the latest example; the state’s Republican state Sen. David Livingston proposed a bill that would create a statewide DNA database to track anyone who applies for a position that involves fingerprinting — including parent school volunteers, teachers, real estate agents and foster parents. The DNA could be shared with virtually any other government agency in the country.
After widespread backlash, Livingston reportedly amended the bill to require DNA only from those who care for patients with intellectual disabilities. Regardless of what happens, the march toward ever-broader collection and data-basing of DNA materials by government at all levels is certain to increase. In this sense, Arizona is simply following a fast-growing trend of genetic curiosity.
What once was available only to highly trained scientists working in massive research facilities is now available to virtually anyone with $50 to spend. In 2017 alone, some 12 million DNA “test kits” were sold to individuals; mostly in the United States. The key questions asked by privacy experts — but far too infrequently by purchasers of DNA test kits — are: What happens to all that extremely revealing and personal information gleaned from testing one’s saliva? Where is the data stored? For how long is it maintained? And who has access to it?
The primary database of DNA information maintained by the federal government, under the watchful eye of the FBI, is “CODIS” (short-hand for Combined DNA Index System); but CODIS is far from the only such repository. Numerous other DNA databases are maintained by federal, state and local government agencies (not limited only to those with law enforcement responsibilities). In addition to the many government DNA databases, there are a number of commercial storehouses, owned and controlled by companies such as Ancestry.com.
The sharing of information between all these entities — government-to-government, company-to-government, government-to-company, and company-to-company — is little understood by the private citizen, and subject to little effective regulatory control. Even when the collection of DNA is mandated by statute, as has been the case for persons arrested for felony offenses in California for the past decade, there is no effective recourse for expunging such information even if the person is never convicted of the offense or is found not guilty.
While Uncle Sam has lagged behind California in mandating the collection of DNA samples from individuals within its custody, it is racing to catch up. Two years ago, for example, the Congress passed, and President Trump signed into law the “Rapid DNA Act of 2017.” The legislation attracted little attention and almost no opposition.
The reason for legislation such as the Rapid DNA Act winning such easy passage is due at least in part to the fact there are important and positive reasons for law enforcement agencies to maintain and have access to a secure and properly-maintained database of DNA information on criminal offenders. The information in a person’s DNA can assist greatly in solving major crimes.
What often is overlooked, however, is that an individual’s DNA information reveals not only the donor’s basic identifying characteristics such as eye and hair color as well as sex and race; but information about their relatives, their health, their propensity for certain diseases, and much more.
In the hands of unscrupulous marketeers, for example, a person’s DNA is the Holy Grail of consumer information; in the aggregate, worth untold millions. For government, which operates according to the universal law that it can never have too much information on those within its jurisdiction, DNA databases can become a tool with which to identify and segregate population groups; and not always to the benefit of the individuals.
It is one thing, of course, if individuals voluntarily give up the secrets of their DNA for the benefit of learning who their “ancestors” might have been. It is quite another concern, however, when the government forces you to give up that information. And it is in this regard that lawmakers in Arizona have opened a new and deeply disturbing chapter in DNA collection.
While today the Arizona proposal is at the extreme of government DNA intrusions, if the trajectory of DNA power grabs in the past decade is any indication, it will soon, and unfortunately, become the norm.
Bob Barr represented Georgia’s 7th District in the House of Representatives from 1995-2003. He now practices law in Atlanta, Georgia and is Chairman of Liberty Guard (a non-profit, pro-liberty organization). He also heads the Law Enforcement Education Foundation (LEEF) and a consulting firm, Liberty Strategies.