To help mark the show's 1000th episode, President Obama gave a remarkable interview last weekend with America's Most Wanted. There, host John Walsh floated the idea of a national DNA database--and the president appeared to approve of a California-like model, where DNA samples are taken upon arrest rather than after conviction.
On Monday in The New York Times, Yale law student Michael Seringhaus does the president one better. Acknowledging that taking DNA upon arrest seems to contradict our "innocent until proven guilty" principle and raises forseeable racial concerns, Seringhaus proposes something some might consider even more radical: a national DNA database of every single American. Here's his argument.
WHY THE CURRENT SYSTEM WON'T WORK
When [the current database] became operational in 1998, only certain classes of convicted criminals (for instance, sex offenders) were profiled. Over the past decade, the list of qualifying crimes has quietly grown (states make their own laws on collection). And last year, the F.B.I. joined more than a dozen states and moved to include DNA profiles from arrestees not yet convicted.
There are several key problems with this approach to expanding the database. First, the national DNA database is racially skewed, as blacks and Hispanics are far more likely than whites to be convicted of crimes. Creating profiles of arrestees only adds to that imbalance.
THE CASE FOR A UNIVERSAL DATABASE
A much fairer system would be to store DNA profiles for each and every one of us. This would eliminate any racial bias, negate the need for the questionable technique of familial search, and of course be a far stronger tool for law enforcement than even an arrestee database ... It would also help prevent wrongful convictions.
HOW THE DNA WOULD BE COLLECTED
As a practical matter, universal DNA collection is fairly easy: it could be done alongside blood tests on newborns, or through painless cheek swabs as a prerequisite to obtaining a driver’s license or Social Security card.
ON THE PRIVACY ISSUE AND SECURITY OF THE INFORMATION
The genetic privacy risk from such profiling is virtually nil, because these records include none of the health and biological data present in one's genome as a whole. Aside from the ability in some cases to determine whether two individuals are closely related, DNA profiles have nothing sensitive to disclose ... Since every American would have a stake in keeping the data private and ensuring that only the limited content vital to law enforcement was recorded, there would be far less likelihood of government misuse than in the case of a more selective database.