DNA Databases Hold More Dangers Than Meet the Eye, ACLU Says

March 23, 2000 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union today urged members of Congress to open their eyes to the unseen dangers presented by the government’s zeal to create a federal database of DNA from people suspected of violating the law.

“While DNA databases may be useful to identify criminals, I am skeptical that we will ward off the temptation to expand their use,” said Barry Steinhardt, Associate Director of the ACLU. “In the last ten years alone we have gone from collecting DNA only from convicted sex offenders to now including people who have been arrested but never convicted of a crime.

“There have even been proposals to store newborns’ DNA for future use by law enforcement,” Steinhardt added. “Although we have already entered the realm of the ‘Brave New World,’ it is not too late to turn back.”

Steinhardt’s comments came in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime, which is considering three different proposals to establish rules and funding for CODIS, the federal DNA database.

The ACLU urged the committee to ensure that any proposal it adopts include measures to guarantee that only persons convicted of serious violent felonies have their DNA entered into CODIS (the Combined Offender DNA Index System), that criminal defendants have access to DNA testing to establish their innocence and that the government destroy the physical sample used to provide DNA.

“While the FBI would like us to believe that the samples will never be used for anything besides catching criminals, the sad truth is that unless the samples are destroyed at some point they will be used improperly,” Steinhardt said.

The Department of Defense, for example, has collected about three million samples from service personnel, purportedly to identify remains of a soldier killed on duty. Yet it not only keeps those samples long after the individual has left the military, it refuses to write rules denying third parties access to the records.

“Proponents of DNA databases argue that they can be used to prove someone’s innocence just as easily as guilt. Sadly this does not hold true in the numerous states that refuse to allow people convicted of crimes access to DNA testing that might exonerate them,” Steinhardt said. “It is only fair that criminal defendants be given the opportunity to use DNA technology that was not previously available.”

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