A DNA database is a stored set of genetic profiles that can be used for a variety of needs. These databases may be public or private. Law enforcement agencies use these databases to track collected evidence. They can also be used to analyze genetic diseases, perform genetic genealogy, and provide long-term information storage for short-term samples that are collected.
In 2002, the DNA Gateway was established by Interpol for criminal investigations. It currently features more than 140,000 different DNA profiles from 69 different countries. It is a unique database in that it is used for informational purposes only.
The pros and cons of a DNA database have major implications in the future development of our society. Here are some of the key points to consider.
List of Pros for DNA Databases
1. It can provide another layer of evidence.
When a crime is committed without the presence of eyewitnesses, a person’s DNA can serve as evidence of their presence at the scene. A DNA database allows investigators to match collected samples against previous records to determine if matches are present. Should a match occur, the evidence against a suspect becomes much stronger. The presence of a DNA database helps to deter crime because of the high levels of certainty that an accurate match is able to provide.
2. There can be crime reduction rates.
DNA databases can help to reduce crime in communities that see criminal behaviors from repeat offenders. That makes it possible for law enforcement officials to take serial offenders off the streets with greater speed, while also deterring some individuals who might think about offending from doing so. In a report published by Forbes and Quora, Jennifer Doleac, Assistant Professors of Public Policy and Economics at the University of Virginia, reports that DNA profiling makes violent offenders 17% less likely to reoffend.
3. People maintain control of their DNA.
The presence of a DNA database does not create a mandatory sample be given and stored for future reference. Unless a warrant is issued for DNA collection because of an investigation, all DNA samples are given voluntarily. Most people will not have their DNA stored in a database unless they want it there for some reason, such as trying to find out their heritage or genealogy.
4. It facilitates information sharing between countries.
In 2015, there were already more than 60 different countries that were operating and maintaining at least one genetic database. The sharing of data is becoming easier than ever before, with more information storage capacity available than ever before. That means international law enforcement agencies will be able to share more information with each other to pursue suspects that, in the past, may have slipped through the cracks.
5. The information can be used for genetic studies.
DNA databases can already be used for some genetic research studies. They are also used to help identify genetic relatives when there are close matches to stored DNA profiles. Although this information may be sensitive, especially when there is a law enforcement point-of-emphasis on this data, it can also be used to further our knowledge about what it means to be human. By having a greater understanding of our DNA, we have opportunities to correct errors that may occur for some people with these basic building blocks of life.
List of Cons for DNA Databases
1. Information can be stored infinitely.
Once DNA information is collected, the database can store that information for an infinite period of time. If the database is public and national, that information could be potentially exposed to individuals who want to use it for criminal intent. DNA profiles could be stored, then accessed by law enforcement officials, making it possible to assume guilt simply because their profile is within the system.
2. Information can be hacked.
A DNA database does not need to be public to be vulnerable to the theft of the data it contains. Hackers have already proven multiple times how versatile they are at accessing data when they want it. The Experian data breach exposed the personal information of more than 123 million people. Retail data breaches have exposed personal details of 50-70 million people in some instances.
3. The data could be used against the individuals it represents.
Imagine this: a hacker gets into a DNA database. They realize that their neighbor up the street has a profile within the system. They go up to the neighbor’s house, rummage through the trash, and obtain a few items that likely contain DNA samples. Then they commit a crime and leave the evidence they collected at the scene. Many people believe DNA evidence is beyond question, which would make it difficult for this innocent neighbor to defend themselves. That’s a potential reality when DNA databases are accessible.
4. DNA information is not 100% accurate.
DNA testing is reportedly 99.9% accurate. Assuming that claim is true, then there is still a 0.1% chance that the information collected is not true. DNA testing kits also produce different results. Terri Gossard submitted a DNA sample to two different databases and discovered a difference of 8 percentage points in her Irish and British descent. That means the results of a matching comparison might be trustworthy, but analytical data from DNA is not as trustworthy as some may advertise it being.
5. DNA is susceptible to human error.
The DNA sample that is included in a database is susceptible to multiple layers of human error. The testing sample could be contaminated, for example, during the collection process. Some databases may over-represent certain groups, which would skew results that are received. Just entering the information into the database in the first place offers a chance for errors to occur. We really are still in the beginning stages of this scientific process.
6. Different nations may have different information storage procedures.
In the U.K., more than 1.6 million fingerprint records were deleted in 2012. More than 1.7 million DNA profiles were deleted. An additional 7.7 million DNA samples, including 480,000 from children, were destroyed. Some countries focus on the protection of freedoms. Others may not. If the information within a DNA database is shared, there is no guarantee that other countries will protect or destroy those records upon request. Different rules in holding data could create a patchwork of database laws that could put a person’s genetic information at-risk globally.
These DNA database pros and cons show us that the information about the basic building blocks of life we obtain can be useful in many ways. They also show us that there is a high level of potential for abuse of this information. That is why guarding our genetic profiles may become one of our next priorities as the push for more DNA databases occurs.