DNA database initiative raises privacy fears

The FBI last week unveiled a system that will let state and local criminal investigators share DNA information to solve crimes, but some observers fear that the information is open to abuse.

The new system, called the National DNA Index System (NDIS), will tap into existing DNA databases maintained by state and local law enforcement agencies. Architects of the system envision it as a tool that will allow investigators in one state to match a DNA sample found at a crime scene with the DNA profile on file for a known criminal in another state.

Donald M. Kerr, director of the FBI Laboratory, described NDIS as "a strong tool to use in resolving a whole series of crimes." He said investigators should find the system especially useful for finding people who commit violent or sexual crimes— crimes in which DNA-bearing evidence such as blood or semen may be present.

But some observers said they believe the system may compromise the privacy of individuals. The FBI may protect information from hackers by using secure lines to connect labs with the central system, but that does not guarantee that users of the system will not abuse it, observers said.

"There is a potential for misuse, and all you need is one person who is willing to sell information for a price," said Karen Coyle, western regional director for Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility.

"My concern is in protecting the information from improper disclosure," said Daniel Schwartz, a former general counsel to the National Security Agency and now a partner with the law firm Bryan Cave LLP, Washington, D.C. Schwartz said improper use of the database might include providing DNA information to an insurance company, which then might use the information to decline insurance based on health-related data implied by the DNA.

FBI officials acknowledged at a press conference Oct. 13 that the system is not without the potential for vulnerability. "One of the vulnerabilities of information systems is that they have to be connected to all of the users," Kerr said.

Dawn Herkenham, chief of the Forensic Science Systems Unit at the FBI, said not everyone in a given state or local lab will be cleared to use the system, and she said NDIS users will have to undergo background checks.

The DNA profiles entered into NDIS by the states will depend on the laws and procedures of the individual states. Some states collect DNA from all felons, and all states collect DNA from people convicted of serious sexual offenses. In Louisiana, DNA may be taken from anyone who is arrested for any crime.

Although the FBI has created NDIS as a tool for holding information on known criminals, observers say the system could expand beyond simply a tool for catching career criminals. "One wonders if that's not an inevitable development in DNA [studies]," said Schwartz, explaining that a DNA database might one day be used to run background checks on federal job candidates— in much the same way that fingerprint databases are used for background checks.

Coyle said the biggest fear is that NDIS might become a storehouse for DNA information on innocent people as well as known criminals. Furthermore, "How can we guarantee...that inaccurate information will never be entered into this database?" asked Coyle, explaining that inaccuracies could flag an innocent person as a criminal suspect.

The FBI has discussed no plans to expand NDIS beyond criminal investigations. But Coyle said history may indicate otherwise. "If a system like this exists, there is a tendency to expand its use because it already exists," she said.

FBI officials and NDIS contractor Science Applications International Corp. see real benefits in the system.

David Berteau, corporate vice president for SAIC, said the system can help clear the names of the innocent as well as help investigators find criminals. An SAIC spokeswoman said investigators will not rely solely on the system but rather will use it as a starting point.

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