by Jayson Hawkins
For every step that technological advances make on the march of progress, so too are pathways opened to abuse. The current rush among law enforcement agencies to acquire “Rapid DNA” machines has thus raised red flags.
These devices enable the user to “generate an identifying DNA profile” from a swab of genetic material after only an hour and a half of processing. That capability—combined with a $30,000 price tag that is well within the means of most police departments—has fueled the deployment of such machines all across the nation, yet little thought has been given to the problems that their use may create.
Standard DNA analysis occurs in the controlled environment of a laboratory and is performed by educated professionals whose work must meet certain protocols; yet, even under these demanding conditions, errors and scandals have been documented. The likelihood that missteps could take place when such requirements are removed jumps from merely possible to highly probable. Cops who use Rapid DNA machines are trained for a couple of hours and lack any distinct protocols. In addition to operator error, preliminary research on the devices has revealed lapses in accuracy due to sample contamination and other faults.
The potential for misidentification is not the only issue surrounding Rapid DNA machines. The devices, intended to identify individuals from a given genetic sample, have instead been used to test evidence from crime scenes. The often adulterated or degraded nature of such evidence renders it too complex for the machines to accurately process. FBI experts on DNA analysis have also voiced concerns that “crime scene samples are often irreplaceable, and Rapid DNA instruments consume the entire sample,” aclu.org reports.
Other problems include the expansion of government DNA databases by taking samples from people who have only been arrested and not convicted, the intrusive nature of taking DNA because it offers intimate information about a subject other than their identity, and the potential to magnify current issues in criminal justice such as racial disparities and warrantless searches through DNA collection.
The ACLU has made four recommendations that must be met to account for the shortcomings in Rapid DNA technology. The first is to enact strict quality controls. The FBI is developing standards of use, but state legislatures need to ensure standards exist at the local level. Second, “formal, legally binding restrictions on the collection, use and retention of DNA” must be imposed to prevent abuses. Third, limits must be placed on “voluntary” collection. In other words, cops should not be allowed to coerce people into surrendering a DNA sample. Fourth, local law enforcement should not be allowed to obtain this technology without the permission of a “democratically elected oversight body.” Finally, government agencies must be transparent in informing residents about the nature of this technology and how it is to be used.
As with any invasive technology, the proper use of Rapid DNA devices would require trust in the judgment of various government agencies. If the past is any precedent, it is a trust that should not be given lightly.
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