In today’s day and age, people can find out their ancestry with ease. DNA databases have helped numerous answer their questions, but do these databases have a potential downside?
by Avani Pammidimukkala
Ever heard of 23andMe? AncestryDNA? MyHeritage? These are the names of major DNA companies who analyze their customers’ DNA and have access to their raw DNA files. Once a customer sends in their DNA for further examination, they can get information of their ancestry, medical patterns, and more. But did you know that the information is uploaded to numerous other sites? The information is not only accessible to the DNA database workers but also to other government officials like criminal investigators. And many people are not happy about this.
Access to these DNA database sources is where our trilemma lies. One side of the controversy approves of the use of DNA database sources as it provides great aid during criminal investigations. The other side, on the other hand, feels that people’s DNA information should not be accessible by others or even publicized due to privacy reasons.
Pro-Open Database perspective:
Access to DNA databases should be allowed as it provides great aid to criminal investigators who are trying to track down an offender. Just by having a minuscule piece of DNA matter can help solve a long-running case and clear up sentences for people who were wrongly convicted.
According to NBC News, the police were able to solve numerous cold cases with the help of DNA databases. To be specific, in 2018, “more than 50 rapes and homicides in 29 states” were solved with the help of DNA databases.
A specific example is the Golden State Killer case. The offender, Joseph James DeAngelo, committed numerous crimes ranging from “brutal murders” to “rapes and burglaries that had plagued northern California during the 1970s and 1980s”.
DeAngelo was not caught until many years later with the help of DNA technology. Criminal investigators used DNA that was collected from a “1980 murder scene, created a DNA profile of the killer, and uploaded it online onto a publicly available DNA database”. The database allowed the investigators to look at information about the ancestors and relatives of the criminal, which helped them narrow down their search and eventually capture the criminal.
What this shows us is that access to DNA information is extremely beneficial for cops. It helps make their investigations easier and faster. It also provides crucial and valuable information that can help save lives.
Pro-Closed Database perspective:
Access to DNA databases should not be allowed as it poses an issue for an individual’s privacy and produces substantial errors during criminal investigations and profiling. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, “citizens may be discouraged from offering their DNA because of issues of data privacy, consent, and unwarranted government intrusion”.
There’s also a personal bias that comes into the picture during criminal investigations. A person’s genetic profile can cause an investigator to link “innocent people to crimes”, according to Harvard Law, and as proven by a 2011 study by them. In this study, 17 experts were given DNA to analyze and link, and they all arrived at different conclusions.
Additionally, criminal investigators can accidentally make the wrong DNA match and arrest an innocent person. There are numerous similar errors that clearly show the flaws of these types of investigation using DNA databases.
There are different reasons to support both the Pro-Open Database and Pro-Closed Database perspectives.
Access to DNA databases is extremely helpful in solving investigations and is sometimes a key tool in criminal investigations. On the other hand, when sending in your DNA (“For fun reasons” like finding a lost family member, or learning your ancestry) to be used in these databases, make sure to pay attention, to where your information is going.
Even so, investigators should still get permission from individuals whose DNA they plan on using during a case. Conversely, a person should be able to choose if they want their DNA to be used for criminal investigations or to be entered into other databases. A person’s privacy should always be respected and their rights should be valued.
However, if DNA information is used, and when these investigations become public, the DNA records should not be publicized (it could endanger the criminal’s family) and should be deleted immediately after the investigation.
Next time you send your DNA to be entered into a database, make sure that you are aware that it may be used for other convictions in the future.