Producer Commentary

PROGRAM: Law & the Genetics of Identity

AUTHOR: Larry Massett

November 1998:

The FBI's "new" national DNA database is really a collection of fifty state databases already in existence. What's new is that the FBI has established common standards for forensic testing and computer software so that the data can now be pooled.

In theory, this is a great step forward in efficiency. Investigators will be able to search a wider collection of genetic evidence more rapidly. In reality, it will be some time before forensic analysts notice much improvement.

For one thing, the FBI standards will require gene samples to be analyzed by a new technique called STR. The conventional technique most used in forensic analysis today, known as RFLP, gives results that cannot simply be converted into STR results. To make their old data usable in the new FBI databank, state laboratories will have to go back to their samples and redo all the tests using STR. This takes time. Worse yet, it takes money; many states are already swamped with genetic evidence lying around unanalyzed because their laboratories have inadequate staff and budget.

There's another hitch, too. All the states agree that DNA should be collected from persons convicted of violent sex offenses, on the grounds that these convicts are statistically disposed to repeat themselves. Beyond this, however, there is no agreement. A few states have begun collecting gene samples from all convicted felons. Obviously, there will be legal challenges. It likely will be years before there are clear guidelines about exactly which DNA samples will be part of a national databank.

All of these problems should be some comfort to those who worry about the possible misuses of genetic data: whatever the future will bring, at least it won't be bringing it all that fast. On the other hand, the potential power-both for good and ill-of databanks is greater than most people think. Consider this scenario, from Sir Alec Jeffries, a geneticist at the University of Leicester and one of the founders of DNA profiling:

Sir Alec Jeffries: "I can see five or ten years down the line. It's not impossible to imagine a device which would enable the forensic scientist to get out of the laboratory and go to the scene of a crime.... The OJ Simpson trial is a good case in point. Where you have evidence collected at the scene of a crime and then taken to lab, there are all sorts of questions about the chain of evidence and whether samples are swapped and so on and so forth. And you have to take it to the lab because the equipment required to analyze DNA is big, it's bulky-you can't carry it around.

"But in five or ten years, we could be looking at a hand-held device, a sort of DNA sniffer if you like, which you could take to the scene of the crime. You could sniff over your sample and up comes-within minutes-the genetic profile of a person. And if you've got a fully global database, you can immediately tap into that, and within a second you can identify your assailant or your perpetrator.

"And that's a very interesting concept, a fine concept. But what does worry me is that the technology could equally well be used to interrogate DNA not for characters that specify your biological identity-you are you, or you are related to whoever.... But equally well we could look at variations that are important in predisposing you to disease, like heart disease and so on. And that really does worry me. Because one could imagine a device which could be used really remotely from the medical community. So again, technology is always a two-edged sword. There are going to be advantages and disadvantages. On the forensics side I see real advantages.

"There are arguments to say, 'Why don't we broaden the database, why don't we put absolutely everybody on it?' So that if you have a crime, you just simply look through the entire population and say, 'Right, that's your man, or woman; go and arrest them.'

"I think that raises a few interesting questions, but I do know a country--not England and certainly not the United States--but I do know one country that's actually passed legislation enabling exactly that sort of database to be established."