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Yale Law Student Wants Government To Have Everybody's DNA 544

An anonymous reader writes "Michael Seringhaus, a Yale Law School student, writes in the NY Times, 'To Stop Crime, Share Your Genes.' In order to prevent discrimination when it comes to collecting DNA samples from criminals (and even people who are simply arrested), he proposes that the government collect a DNA profile from everybody, perhaps at birth (yes, you heard that right)." Regarding the obvious issue of genetic privacy, Seringhaus makes this argument: "Your sensitive genetic information would be safe. A DNA profile distills a person’s complex genomic information down to a set of 26 numerical values, each characterizing the length of a certain repeated sequence of 'junk' DNA that differs from person to person. Although these genetic differences are biologically meaningless — they don’t correlate with any observable characteristics — tabulating the number of repeats creates a unique identifier, a DNA 'fingerprint.' 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."
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Yale Law Student Wants Government To Have Everybody's DNA

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 15, 2010 @03:11PM (#31485834)

    Fuck off, Seringhaus. Your idea stinks, and should have absolutely no place in the United States, or any other first-world nation that considers freedom to be of even the slightest importance.

  • Re:Dammit... (Score:4, Informative)

    by Danse ( 1026 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @03:14PM (#31485912) fingers don't even have to be cold and dead to pry my DNA out of them.

    They would if you had a gun too! :)

  • This is why... (Score:5, Informative)

    by vvaduva ( 859950 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @03:20PM (#31486012) shouldn't listen to student lawyers that still can't grow a mustache!

    The Israelis have already shown that DNA can be replicated [] and an innocent individual could be implicated in a crime without his or her knowledge.

    Only an ignorant fool would advocate what this guy is advocating!

  • Re:Until... (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 15, 2010 @03:26PM (#31486130)

    I'm afraid you don't know much about genetics. The "use" of that junk DNA is as a spacer, to help the chromosome fold into a specific shape. Forensics uses a kind of repeating DNA sequence called a VNTR, which is just a repetition of a handful of nucleotides less than 50 bp in length. These sequences are shaped in such a way that they cause DNA polymerase to slip, and so when passing on the genes there is a higher likelihood that they will change in the number of repeats. The content of these repeats is the same in everyone, it is only the number of them that varies. When the genes containing these sequences are expressed, they are cut out (look up "intron" on Wikipedia) and are prevented from being expressed.

    There are a very small number of VNTR patterns that are actually important to medicine and biology, such as the one that causes Huntington's disease, where different numbers of repetitions can create problems. However, the VNTRs that forensics use are known to have no impact on cell health (there are enough to chose from!) As our dear foolish law student said, the FBI's database really just consists of a few numbers (the number of repetitions for each VNTR per chromosome.)

    As far as programmers should be concerned, the use of genetics in criminology is directly analogous to creating a unique serial number for people, which can only be cheated by faking a blood sample or by identical twins. Any rebuttals of this technique should focus on that scenario, or on corruption of the process used to check and verify the samples (i.e. mishandling of the samples, collection of extra info, et cetera.) The actual procedure this guy's proposing isn't at fault for procedural reasons, and unless you've actually taken a genetics course, STFU about GATTACA-like scenarios.

  • by wizardforce ( 1005805 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @03:30PM (#31486202) Journal

    These 26 markers are basically snippets of DNA that are cut out of a DNA sample using endonucleases. these enzymes only cut at specific sites like GATTACA but not AATTACA etc. These cuts depend on the sequence of the snippet in question. The cuts are different lengths depending on where that GATTACA site is. A mutation at the G in the example causes the enzyme not to cut where it normally does. The probability of two separate individuals sharing the same genetic fingerprint would be at the least incredibly rare outside of identical twins.
    So much in fact that human error with the test its self would be far more likely to blame for a match on more than one individual than more than one individual sharing the same genetic fingerprint outside of identical twins.

  • by another_other ( 1767998 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @03:31PM (#31486218)

    Newborn babies in the United States are routinely screened for a panel of genetic diseases. Since the testing is mandated by the government, it's often done without the parents' consent, according to the National Newborn Screening & Genetics Resource Center. In many states, newborn, babies' DNA is stored indefinitely, according to the resource center. In New Jersey, newborn babies' DNA is stored for 23 years. In 2008 alone over 125,000 samples of newborn's DNA was collected and stored in a government or state run lab in New Jersey. While I do not think that parents should forego such genetic screening, I think they should have the right to have the screening done privately and with their complete consent. While we know the law (GINA) signed by then President George W. Bush is supposed to protect future generations from discrimination based on their genetic profiles, even the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children suggests that only parents or legal guardians should have access to a child's genetic profile. Many parents don't realize their baby's DNA is being stored in a government lab, but when they find out, as this couple did, they take action. Parents in Texas, and Minnesota have filed lawsuits, and these parents' concerns are sparking a new debate about whether it's appropriate for a baby's genetic blueprint to be in the government's possession.

  • That is until the pharm and insurance companies decide it would be beneficial for their businesses if the government collected this information, processed the full sequence and then shared it with them for free.

    A few well placed political donations (thanks supreme court for dropping the caps!) and it is a done deal.

  • Re:Until... (Score:3, Informative)

    by wizardforce ( 1005805 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @03:34PM (#31486260) Journal

    Non-protein coding regions would be far far more accurate. Biologists have known this to be the case for quite some time yet the media just won't let the "junk DNA" term die.

  • junk dna (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 15, 2010 @03:41PM (#31486376)

    just because junk dna doesn't play a major or obvious role in human biology doesn't mean it should not be private information. The fact is science has not determined what this dna is for. Assuming it does not contain any private information is premature. Maybe once we know more about the human genome we can identify certain base positions that do not contain any private information but that could be used to uniquely identify a person. I would gladly submit this portion of my genome to the government, much in the same way I gave them a photograph of myself.

  • Re:Will not work (Score:2, Informative)

    by jhutcheson ( 1054640 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @03:41PM (#31486388)

    Before taking such shots on a person instead of the issue, you should always at least Google...

    Michael Seringhaus [i]s a third-year student at Yale Law School, where he serves as an executive editor of the Yale Journal of Law and Technology (YJoLT) and a co-director of the Green Haven Prison Project, as well as the Trumbull College Graduate Affiliate Coordinator. He completed his PhD and a short post-doc in Mark Gerstein's bioinformatics group in the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale University in 2007. He did his undergraduate work at Trinity College, University of Toronto and thereafter spent a year as lead bioinformatics scientist at Affinium Pharmaceuticals in Toronto.

    Looks like he may have the credentials (one of the top law schools, editor of a law journal on law & tech, and... a PhD in bioinformatics) to at least get past your initial objection.

    As to your other objection, and I'm not saying I agree with his central thesis, there are other factors that would likely eliminate the false positive issue (esp. if it's upwards of 1:1,000,000,000) - physical location (if your passport says you were out of the country when the crime occurred, surveillance tape has you at a retail store across town, etc.), other physical evidence at the crime scene, etc.

    I should probably concede that there's that extremely distant chance that your DNA doppelganger could live in the same neighborhood, frequent the same social circles, and commit a crime in which you have no alibi and there's no other evidence aside from some trace DNA. That would be a real bummer.

  • by MozeeToby ( 1163751 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @03:42PM (#31486406)

    Except, being convicted means that a court of law found you guilty. Being arrested means a cop didn't like you and wanted to arrest you. "Oh, yelling at a polic officer isn't disturbing the peace? Ok, you can go... but we're keeping your DNA and fingerprints on record, so you better watch yourself!"

  • by rmushkatblat ( 1690080 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @03:43PM (#31486410)
    Uh, no they don't. CONVICTED people forfeit certain rights. You retain all your rights upon arrest.
  • by Swanktastic ( 109747 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @03:46PM (#31486472)

    We shouldn't automatically reject any proposal simply because abuse and mistakes are possible.

    If I used your exact same methodology/argument to evaluate the criminal justice system, I would have to decide that it doesn't make sense to prosecute criminals because we could make a mistake and send a guilty person to jail. Society has decided that it is OK to prosecute criminals as long as the rate of false convictions is low because the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.

    IF it is indeed technically possible that one can "hash" DNA into a one-way encoding, then the concerns for abuse drop dramatically while the benefits (identification) still stay roughly the same.

    The more rational argument is to compare this proposal to our existing system of criminal investigation, flaws and all, where cops intimidate/interrogate everyone they suspect they get their man/woman.

  • You got it. (Score:5, Informative)

    by khasim ( 1285 ) <> on Monday March 15, 2010 @03:55PM (#31486652)

    The birthday collision illustrated: []

    Even with 365 days a year, there is 50% probability that two people will have the same birthday in any random group of 23 people.

    Now take 300 million people right now in the USofA.

    Where is the evidence that these strings of "junk" DNA really are that unique?

  • by FrankSchwab ( 675585 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @03:59PM (#31486732) Journal

    That's the CSI belief.

    Now, for reality: []

  • by HungryHobo ( 1314109 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @04:02PM (#31486788)

    several billion to one?

    If the chances of any 2 individuals matching is 5,000,000,000 to 1
    Then in a population of 214,597 people there's a 99% chance of at least 1 pair matching.

    in a population of 300,000,000 there's going to be a significant number of doubles.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 15, 2010 @04:18PM (#31487030)


    -the government

  • by pleappleappleap ( 1182301 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @04:27PM (#31487160) Homepage

    Good Lord. Please go read the Constitution.

  • by nospam007 ( 722110 ) * on Monday March 15, 2010 @04:30PM (#31487200)

    The dumb ones become POTUS.

  • by AthanasiusKircher ( 1333179 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @05:05PM (#31487726)

    Yes, and as we know, we're already keeping biological samples from infants in many states indefinitely. []

    And yes, many states that do this claim that there are great restrictions on its use, but as we've recently seen in Texas, this system already has been abused. I simply don't understand why the government wouldn't allow parents to request that such samples be destroyed within a reasonable amount of time, if they so desire -- unless they're up to more nefarious purposes. And don't tell me it's for overall population research only, since samples could be anonymous for that sort of thing, only retaining some basic demographic data. The only reasonable explanation is that someday, someone will want to use these samples to track you down and check up on you specifically -- whether it's for some medical purpose or law enforcement or something else.

    Right now, my state only allows you to opt out if the parents have religious objections. Otherwise, the samples are required by law and will be stored indefinitely. We're already well on our way to this database.

  • by Foobar of Borg ( 690622 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @05:17PM (#31487906)

    This guy reminds me of a cute little 5 year old. His heart is in the right place and he just wants everything fair and nice.

    Actually, I would be more interested in what he plans to do after graduation and if this kind of database would be useful for him. Remember, he is a law student. Lawyers don't care about the truth. In fact, it is a part of the job description ("zealous advocacy" and all that sort of thing). He probably does not actually believe what he is writing, but if enough *other* people believe his arguments, he gets what he wants.

    Remember politicians, lawyers, journalists, and similar people are not interested in facts or logical arguments. They are interested in "winning" the argument since it gives them the advantage.

    It is a problem that geeks (myself included, I'm not trying to poke fun at anyone) have with the "real world" of politics and law. We are used to dealing with science and engineering principles, which require that we find out what the facts are, and to how many decimal places. We use logic as a means to design things properly or determine new principles.

    In the "real world" facts are used selectively and placed in favorable lights. The truth is relevant only insofar as it serves someone's needs.

  •     Honestly, I'm less worried about a random bad guy than I am about a LEO detective looking for a quick resolution to a case. Worse, a LEO detective with some sort of grudge against me. Grudges are easy to come by. Lets look at the two most motivating factors of any crime (which that would be), sex and money.

        Say I meet a nice girl. Her ex-boyfriend or ex-husband was a cop. (god forbid she's cheating on him, then you're really screwed). He'd absolutely hate the fact that I'm dating "his" girl. Because of that, it could be more than reasonable for him to want me out of the way. Just a simple example, but a valid one.

        Then there's money. Successful cops with high conviction rates get promotions. It could be something more nefarious, like he knows the real criminal, and is getting paid off to frame anyone else for it. In the case of a high profile case, it's worth a whole lot more to them to get a conviction, even if it means falsifying evidence and beating a confession out of your average Joe.

        There's less of a chance that a bad guy would randomly chose me. If he's going to go through the work of framing me, it'd be easier to do the crime clean, so there were no traces back to him. Better yet, leave no evidence of the crime (in the case of murder, it's leaving a clean or untraceable crime scene, and disposing of the body in a way it won't be found). Eliminate the fingerprint evidence, and eliminate any trace evidence, and all you have left is circumstantial. Just because Mr. Bad Guy didn't like Mr. Victim doesn't mean that that he "encouraged" him to leave town. The sex factor can still come into play, but for a serious criminal, it's easier to dispose of the competition than to frame them and let them rot in jail.

        In that, I have been through court. You'd be absolutely amazed at the falsified evidence that would be introduced to bolster their case. In my case, it went away with a good defense attorney, but it still made the truth harder to prevail. I got good news a few years later though, the cops involved were prosecuted for falsifying evidence and other serious crimes. None of it trickled down to my silly little case, but it was nice reading about it in the news. Karma's a bitch, and they brought her down on themselves with a vengeance. That in itself didn't overturn 20 years of previous convictions though.

  • by anagama ( 611277 ) <> on Tuesday March 16, 2010 @12:43AM (#31491992) Homepage

    Yup. This guy is an idiot. How does he know government can always be trusted with the information, among other things.

    He doesn't. He's just angling for some staffer job to get experience before being appointed(*) to legislative, executive, or in his case, judicial, office.

    (*) nobody actually is elected anymore -- candidates' entrance fess are paid by either major party and their associated independent PACs in exchange for showing undying loyalty to the party machine, which is not in any way the same as being loyal to America. All you have to do is rise up high enough in the hierarchy, and a seat will be found for you. Our friend at Yale has a great future as a Democrat or Republican.

Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed. -- Neil Armstrong