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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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  • Fine With Me (Score:5, Interesting)

    by LearnToSpell ( 694184 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @03:11PM (#31485830) Homepage
    Gimme your /etc/shadow too. What's the problem? It's encrypted.
  • That fucker! (Score:2, Interesting)

    by BubbaDave ( 1352535 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @03:11PM (#31485838)

    They'll stop looking for a match after they find one- regardless of the fact there will be hundreds to thousands of potential matches.


  • Paternity (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Nit Picker ( 9292 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @03:12PM (#31485856)

    Someone could have a field day with this data looking for discrepancies between claimed and actual paternity. A gold-mine for the tech savvy blackmailer.

  • by rodrigoandrade ( 713371 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @03:14PM (#31485906)
    Or worse, he probably watched it and thought it's a great idea.

    Oh, and where's the gattaca tag?
  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna ( 970587 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @03:14PM (#31485920) Journal
    Can a parent provide a DNA sample to some collection agency for money or for few? Can a child sue his/her parents, when he/she turns 18 if his/her parents have compromised his/her privacy?
  • Re:Will not work (Score:4, Interesting)

    by MyLongNickName ( 822545 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @03:23PM (#31486064) Journal

    " the chance of two unrelated people having the same fingerprint is (and I don't know the actual number) one in ten million and if you have every American in a database then given a DNA sample you'll get thirty people, twenty nine of which will be dragged into court through no fault of their own. Put simply, this is a profoundly stupid idea.'

    Wow. So you have no clue about the actual overlap rate, have no clue if the author does, and then conclude his idea is dumb.

    I marvel at the logic of you and the person who modded you up.

  • by commodore64_love ( 1445365 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @03:24PM (#31486078) Journal

    >>>Overton Window

    "Ya wants me to break some more windows and provide Job Stims to the glass makers???" - government thug. Or maybe just junk some perfectly functional cars, which passed emissions inspections flawlessly, but we have to make work for those Government Motors employees.

  • by Sir_Lewk ( 967686 ) < minus herbivore> on Monday March 15, 2010 @03:25PM (#31486104)

    For the same reasons that it is only fair to put people that have been convicted in prison, but not people who haven't been.

    *Note: I don't think it is fair to do this to anyone, least of all innocent babies. I may be able to become convinced it is ok to do this to people who are convicted felons (that is a pretty unlikely 'may'), but you'll never convince me this is ok to do to people who are merely arrested.

  • by GameMaster ( 148118 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @03:34PM (#31486256)

    I tend to think it's fair to collect it from people who are arrested, but only if it is destroyed automatically if they aren't convicted in a certain amount of time afterword. The problem is that the US government (along with state and local authorities have proven themselves incapable of deleting any data once hey have their hands on it).

  • by chill ( 34294 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @03:39PM (#31486350) Journal

    His main argument against storing DNA of only convicted criminals is that there aren't enough white criminals, so the idea is racist. This entire premise makes me want to puke.

  • by khasim ( 1285 ) <> on Monday March 15, 2010 @03:49PM (#31486536)

    For this purpose, it has to be unique.
    26 sequences ... of what length each (range)?

    Even 1 in a billion means there are 6 other people out there.

  • Or worse. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by khasim ( 1285 ) <> on Monday March 15, 2010 @04:02PM (#31486776)

    Once the cops have your DNA (and a dislike for you) what's to stop a bad cop from leaving your DNA at their next "unsolved" crime? []For a truly bizarre twist on this.

  • Re:Paternity (Score:3, Interesting)

    by zero_out ( 1705074 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @04:05PM (#31486828)
    That was already done, on a smallish scale. I remember reading, a few years ago, about 1 in 10 men in Chicago are raising a child that they believe is theirs, but in fact, is not. This was based on data collected at a hospital. I think it was blood tests? I can't take the time to look up the original study / article at this moment.
  • by Americano ( 920576 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @04:05PM (#31486834)

    I agree with your conclusion, but your arguments are fairly weak.

    Now that's usually pretty good, like 1 in a million or something. However not so useful if your sample size is 300,000,000 and growing.

    If the match was a probability of 1 in 1 million, and you have 300 million samples, then you would expect three hundred (300) matches. For the purpose of finding a criminal, narrowing down your list of suspects to 300 "likely" candidates based on a DNA or fingerprint match, you can very quickly narrow down your search to people who: a) could have been present at the scene of the crime during its commission; and b) have a possible motive to commit the crime in question.

    "We know that 1 of these 300 people probably committed this crime. Now the police simply have to investigate to figure out which of them are likely to be tied to this crime either by proximity or possible motive." How is that not useful, from a law enforcement standpoint? You just narrowed your list of potential suspects from 300 million to 300, a large number of whom could probably be eliminated simply because they are not remotely related to the victim in any way, spatially or socially.

    Now, that said, I agree that there is huge potential for a tool like this to be misused and abused, and I don't like the idea of "the government" tracking people in this manner. But to claim that a 1 in a million sensitivity makes the tool entirely useless to law enforcement isn't much of a compelling argument against it.

    Also there's the fact that DNA tests aren't cheap, or particularly quick.

    Technology marches on, and the cost and time required get smaller and smaller all the time. And imagine how much the price would fall when you create - by law - a market of 300 million customers.

    They aren't the kind of thing you can use for every criminal case

    But it'd make finding high-profile criminals who leave DNA samples behind a lot faster, wouldn't it?

    it'd be way too expensive, not to mention unnecessary.

    What's "way too expensive"? People react pretty strongly to stories of serial murder, rape, and the like. Often times there is DNA evidence that can be collected, but law enforcement doesn't have a match for the DNA, so they don't have a lead as to who might have committed the crime - they're just waiting to find a suspect who they can test the DNA evidence against. With this, they could collect DNA evidence, run it against a database, and instantly have a fairly small set of leads for people who are very likely candidates.

    Hypothetical: Serial rapist is terrorizing New York City. Police have a DNA sample. With a database like this, they could pull a list of 300 people "who might be the serial rapist." They can rapidly go through that list and say "okay, in that 300 people, 50 of them live within 300 miles of New York City. Let's start interviewing those people, and see what turns up." If the matches are *accurate* (and this is the point you must really attack if you want to argue against this sort of a database), then it's overwhelmingly likely that one of those 50 people would turn out to be your criminal.

    Now, if you can demonstrate that the DNA matching is inaccurate, leads to false positives, or sends law enforcement down blind alleys with false leads, then this database is a "bad idea." If you can't demonstrate that, then I'm sorry to say, but most of the public is going to say "This is a great thing, because it will allow us to catch rapists and murderers faster." And I'd be inclined to agree - if it could be guaranteed that this type of law enforcement is the only thing the database were used for, and that the DNA fingerprinting technique is accurate. Do you want to be the person who stands up and says, "Sorry, I don't want to spend $100 on a DNA test to prevent a half a dozen more murders?"

    Fingerprints are

  • by night_flyer ( 453866 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @04:05PM (#31486836) Homepage []

    At the moment it is *just* upon arrest... how's that hope and change working out for you?

  • however, the most idiotic crowd i see are actually those with a pathological distrust of government

    in a democracy, the government is yours, it is your representatives. all paranoid schizophrenic fantasy life and hypernegative ignorant cynicism to the contrary

    as such, you afford it a certain amount of trust. too much, and you're a moron. but also true: too little, and you're also moron, to the same degree

    a society with a rabid unintelligent hostility towards its own democratically elected government is just as stupid, useless, and, most importantly, POOR, as a society of blindly trusting fools

    trust is a funny thing in life: you can trust too much, and you can trust too little. its a highly sensitive balance. to a large degree in life, the amount of trust you ascribe to certain entities: your family, your spouse, your friends, your government, and even yourself, largely determines how successful you will be in life, and i don't mean just financially. the amount of trust you give each of these entities is determined by your character, and the exact amount to give is always changing, depending upon new info

    but in addition to those broadly overarching trust issues, you also see in some people either a constant overabundance of trust, and, also, a constant low ball amount of trust. the people who pathologically distrust have replaced intelligence with a sort of hypernegative ignorant cynicism. and the result is they lead impoverished lives. and i don't necessarily mean financially impoverished, although that also figures, but also impoverished in term of their happiness, and in terms of the richness and strength of their social bonds. such people, when they whine about the evil gubmint, are speaking more of their own failed pathology and bad character, not any intelligence on the matter

    i see no lessons learned from history in their deep distrust, i only see a pathological type of character who works hard to redefine the trust threshold of our government unintelligently downward. if we let such inevitably loudmouth people hold sway, then the entirety of society is impoverished for the sake of their mental errors, not because of any higher grasp on truth

  • by perlchild ( 582235 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @04:31PM (#31487216)

    Having it be a DNA instead of a regular fingerprint isn't the problem.

    Having digtalised fingerprints(actual strings of bytes) stored about me that can be legally claimed to be me, regardless of how they are gathered, transmitted, handled is.

    He's looking for a technical solution to the problem that the government can't be trusted with identifying information about anyone. Bad enough when it's convicted criminals(you can say they earned some of it). But ip theft occurs, with just what amounts to near-public information. Just how bad will it get when people can just copy a string of bytes and say it's you?

    He's trying to solve the wrong problem, because the right problem is NP-Hard, if not unsolvable.

    How can all those clerks, police officers, etc.. have access to what amounts to identifying information, and how can we secure it, how can we make sure it's not used for police officers "fishing" for someone to convict?

    Those are very hard questions, the answers haven't seen much public debate, and his solution addresses none of them, only the "if your identity leaks, you've also lost the privacy lock on your medical file".

  • by AstroMatt ( 1594081 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @04:34PM (#31487282)
    Yea, I dated a forensic scientist for a while, and she thought it was a great movie and a great idea.
  • I'll solve the primary dilemma with a direct quote of the reply I gave somebody else:

    This is assuming, of course, that we'd be allowing a DNA match to serve as the sole means of establishing probable cause for arrest and charging. I'd argue for the ability to keep the fingerprints, but still require as much burden of proof as would have been previously required to obtain the sample independently before using a fingerprint in court.

  • by Gabrosin ( 1688194 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @05:17PM (#31487930)

    Punishing those that violate the law is only possible if we have a means for determining that they violated the law. Theoretically, a genetic database containing information on all our citizens could be classified as a state secret, and anyone attempting to sue for information about it (in an attempt to determine any such wrongdoing) could be stonewalled under the same state secrets doctrine that both Bush and Obama have been using for years (specifically with regards to surveillance of US citizens).

    I'm generally supportive of the researcher's idea, just as I'm generally supportive of the idea of a national ID card. But there are serious hurdles that have to be addressed before we could put something like this into practice, and saying "we'll just punish those that violate the law", even when the violators would amount to an entire institution of the US Government with no transparency and no oversight, is just naive.

  • by Nefarious Wheel ( 628136 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @05:25PM (#31488056) Journal

    Recently and ongoing, there's been work to try to discover some genetic predilection to particular behaviours. Things like a "entrepreneurial gene", a "thief gene", a "rapist gene", and so on. Wouldn't it be awkward if everyone's genetic fingerprint were encoded on the genes which encode for predilection to discover holes in crackpot genetic crime prevention theories?

    At the risk of invoking Godwin, I'm going to point out that a certain party during WWII had determined - via phrenology and other pseudoscientific means - that certain classes of people were fundamentally flawed, and proposed an ultimate solution to their quality of life issues were (a) more room to live (lebensraum) and (b) removal of the people classified as defective from society.

    The first step was to invade a peaceful neighboring country, the second was by systematic removal of people of certain genetic types, "geno-cide". This removal involved transporting people via rail freight cars and interring them in landfill, after removing any valuables (such as gold teeth) first.

    People, classifying people in any way is dangerous. Institutionalising the classification of people is pernicious. And if that pan has a handle, people will carry with it.

    If you put people in boxes, pretty soon you'll see a lot of people in boxes.

    Stop this insanity now.

  • Re:Will not work (Score:3, Interesting)

    by chrb ( 1083577 ) on Monday March 15, 2010 @05:26PM (#31488096)

    This is a well known point and one which forensic scientists are well aware of. The point is not that DNA is the whole evidence, but forms part of the evidence. Juries are supposed to take other evidence into account too:

    "It seems logical therefore that DNA evidence alone cannot be a proof – some additional information is necessary. However, the amount of additional information that is necessary might be a very small amount. For example, add to the DNA matching evidence (of 7000 to one) the mere knowledge that the suspect was arrested before his DNA type was known, and you have something like a proof." link []

    "In the early days of the use of genetic fingerprinting as criminal evidence, juries were often swayed by spurious statistical arguments by defense lawyers along these lines: given a match that had a 1 in 5 million probability of occurring by chance, the lawyer would argue that this meant that in a country of say 60 million people there were 12 people who would also match the profile. This was then translated to a 1 in 12 chance of the suspect being the guilty one. This argument is not sound unless the suspect was drawn at random from the population of the country. In fact, a jury should consider how likely it is that an individual matching the genetic profile would also have been a suspect in the case for other reasons" wiki []

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 15, 2010 @07:13PM (#31489324)

    And anyone who thinks you're being paranoid has never been part of a criminal trial.

    Or lived in Houston []. Or Texas [] in general.

    Down here, DNA is only good for proving people are guilty. Any evidence that might indicate that the accused is innocent is either destroyed, lied about, or just ignored.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 15, 2010 @07:52PM (#31489724)

    Seeing as the birthday problem, roughly P(collision) = 1 - ( 365! / ( 365 - n )! ) / 365^n only gets interesting as n becomes a reasonable percentage of the sample range (e.g. 23 is 6.3% of 365), and 3.0 x 10^8 is much much much less than 3.0 x 10^23, it might be reasonable to assume that the birthday problem isn't that big of a deal here... not that there aren't plenty of other issues to consider.

    It isn't a simple "when the load factor reaches 6%, collisions become likely."
    At 1000, the threshold is 38 (3.8% of output space)
    At 10000, the threshold is 118 (1.2%)

    If you'd like to claim that a given output space is unlikely to have any collisions, post some real calculations.

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