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The FBI’s Rapidly Expanding DNA Database

by Anthony W. Accurso

The FBI has amassed over 20 million DNA profiles in its database and has requested Congress double its budget for handling DNA samples “to process the rapidly increasing number of DNA samples collected.”

The Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, is the FBI’s centrally searchable repository for DNA profiles maintained by the agency. It started in the early 1990s but was formalized as a central database in 1998. At first, it was limited to samples from crime scenes, unidentified remains, and people convicted of sex crimes.

“If you look back at when CODIS was established, it was originally for violent or sexual offenders,” said Anna Lewis, a Harvard researcher specializing in the ethics of genetics research. “The ACLU warned that this was going to be a slippery slope, and that’s indeed what we’ve seen.”

Now, all states and federal jurisdictions collect DNA from individuals convicted of any felony, and 28 states collect samples from people arrested on suspicion of a felony, regardless of whether they are eventually convicted.

“It changed massively,” said Lewis. “You only have to be a person of interest to end up in these databases.”

In April 2023, FBI director Christopher Wray testified before Congress about the FBI’s request to add $53.1 million to its then budget of $56.7 million to increase the agency’s capacity to process and catalog samples. He stated that the agency was collecting around 90,000 samples a month and “expected that number to swell to about 120,000 a month, totaling about 1.5 million new DNA samples a year.”

Much of this expansion has been driven by the Department of Homeland Security. In 2009, that agency was tasked with collecting DNA from detainees processed by Customs and Border Patrol, but the Obama Administration exempted the department from collection requirements for non-U.S. detainees because the mandate came without additional funding from Congress.

This exemption was lifted in 2019 by the Trump Administration. But COVID hit soon after, and Title 42 expulsions did not require DNA collection.

Wray’s new estimate of 120,000 a month is the expected number of collections once Title 42 expulsions were set to end, a mere few weeks after his April testimony. The director also requested the additional budget to process the current backlog, so newly screened detainees can be checked through CODIS in a timely manner.

“This substantial increase in sampling has created massive budget and personnel shortfalls for the FBI,” wrote Wray in his statement to Congress. “While the FBI has worked with DHS components to automate and streamline workflows, a backlog of approximately 650,000 samples has developed, increasing the likelihood of arrestees and non-U.S. detainees being released before identification through investigative leads.”

This backlog may seem daunting, but sampling has gotten cheaper, easier, and faster, with samples being processed by machines within 1-2 hours from when the cheek swab is taken, “without a lab or human involvement.”

Just how easy such processing has become is troubling for privacy advocates like Vera Eidelman, a staff attorney at the ACLU, who says that advances in efficiency mean that surveillance tech like DNA sampling “tends to get used more often—often in ways that are troubling.”

Eidelman’s concerns about FBI mission creep developing into a universal DNA database is particularly scary since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has begun a program of “autonomously collected [environmental] DNA testing,” also known as eDNA collection.

“Just by breathing, you’re discarding DNA in a way that can be traced back to you,” said Lewis.

“Our DNA is personal and sensitive: It can expose our propensity for serious health conditions, family members, and ancestry,” Eidelman told The Intercept. “A universal database really just would subvert our ideas of autonomy and freedom and the presumption of innocence, and would be saying that it makes sense for the government to track us at any time based on our private information.”  





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