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Do Dna Databases Violate Privacy?

All 50 states and the federal government maintain DNA databases of certain convicted criminals. DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is the chemical that reveals a person's genetic makeup. A database containing the DNA of convicted criminals helps law enforcement find and identify repeat criminal offenders. Prior to 1998, the federal DNA database and the state databases were not completely integrated, so sharing DNA information between the states was not an easy task.

In October 1998, the FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION (FBI) began operating a nationwide DNA database called the National DNA Index System, under the DNA Identification Act of 1994 (Public Law 103 322). The system consists of the DNA databases from all 50 states and the FBI's own DNA database. As of 2003, it contained approximately 1.3 million DNA samples. The national database makes it possible for law enforcement officials in one state to compare DNA found at a crime scene with DNA samples that exist in the DNA databases of other states. When the national DNA database was installed, FBI director Louis Freeh predicted that it would be of great value to city, county, state, and federal law enforcement agencies if they work together to apprehend violent criminals.

The national DNA database in the United States is similar to the one that has been used in England since 1995. In Great Britain, the empire-wide DNA database includes DNA samples from crime scenes, from anyone convicted of a crime, and from persons who are suspects in unsolved cases. The Police Superintendents Association in England has even proposed obtaining DNA samples from every person in England. There is no plan in the United States for such widespread DNA gathering.

Who, then, should be required to provide a DNA sample? This question comes up again and again concerning the use of, DNA databases. Almost all states require that persons convicted of serious SEX OFFENSES give a DNA sample upon their conviction. However, the states differ on whether to mandate DNA profiling of all violent felons, persons paroled from jail, and juvenile offenders. And what about an individual who is on PAROLE for a past crime? Should he or she be required to retroactively provide a sample? A national DNA database may be a boon for law enforcement personnel, but it raises concern over protection of privacy.

In March 1999, U.S. Attorney General JANET RENO requested that a federal commission look into the possibility of requiring all arrested persons to give a DNA sample. In 2003, the GEORGE W. BUSH administration backed the proposal. The administration also pushed to require DNA samples from juvenile offenders. The notion that a person may be required under federal law to give a DNA sample based on the mere suspicion of criminal activity is chilling to civil libertarians. The FBI, however, insists that DNA EVIDENCE is the future of law enforcement and that the national database has already resulted in a number of successes. As of 2002, over six thousand DNA samples had been matched to unsolved crimes. The FBI is also quick to point out that the DNA database is a secure system, and that all users, including researchers, are required to undergo background checks.

Other proponents of the national database herald the coming of a national DNA database for its exculpatory potential. A person may easily be eliminated as a suspect through DNA evidence and, in some cases, DNA evidence can prove a convicted defendant innocent, which results in freedom and true, albeit tardy, justice. Opponents of a comprehensive national DNA database concede that DNA evidence can be exculpatory, but groups such as the AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION (ACLU) are gearing up for a legal battle that will almost certainly reach the U.S. Supreme Court.


Kaye, David, et al. 2001. "Is a DNA Identification Database in Your Future?" Criminal Justice 16 (fall).

Puri, Allison. 2001. "An International DNA Database: Balancing Hope, Privacy, and Scientific Error." Boston College International and Comparative Law Review 24 (spring).

Webster, Warren R., Jr. 2000. "DNA Database Statutes and Privacy in the Information Age." Health Matrix 10 (winter).

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