New Cop Tech: Portable DNA Scanners That Upload to National DNA Database

The Federal Bureau of Investigation recently rolled out its new Next Generation Identification program, a national database system aimed at harvesting and storing biometric information on Americans. What was initially a national fingerprint system containing samples obtained from individuals accused of crimes has now become a broad biometric database with facial, tattoo, and iris recognition data on Americans, including some who have not been accused of crimes at all. Now, according to NextGov, a trade publication for federal IT contractors, the FBI’s biometric data collection mission is creeping into new territory: massive DNA dragnets.

On November 13, the FBI will host a presentation on its new NGI biometric database, and developers of rapid and portable DNA analysis devices have been invited to attend. The plan is to integrate these tools into the NGI system, which would allow officers to analyze and upload DNA profiles while on the go. Civil liberties advocates worry that these tools will accelerate an already-escalating trend towards the creation of a nationwide database containing the DNA profiles of most or all Americans, whether or not they have been accused of crimes. An example of a rapid, portable DNA analysis machine has been provided in the above-embedded video commercial demonstrating one that was developed by NEC Australia.

For context, in 2013, the Supreme Court ruled, “When officers make an arrest supported by probable cause to hold for a serious offense and bring the suspect to the station to be detained in custody, taking and analyzing a cheek swab of the arrestee’s DNA is, like fingerprinting and photographing, a legitimate police booking procedure that is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.” However, portable DNA readers bring a whole new issue into the discussion — what privacy protections are there in situations when the DNA is taken, not during the booking process after an arrest, but out on the streets using a portable machine?

The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s lead attorney Jennifer Lynch, who has been warning about the privacy implications of portable, rapid DNA analyzers since 2013, was quoted by NextGov as saying, “If you leave something behind, let’s say your trash on the sidewalk out in front of your house, then you’ve abandoned any kind of privacy interest in the trash, and so the cops can search through that trash without a warrant. That reasoning has been extended to DNA — if you leave your DNA behind, then the cops could get it without a warrant and test it… Your DNA data could be linked to all the other biometric and biographic information about you that is already in NGI. Because we discard DNA wherever we go, this allows the government the ability to further surveil people without their knowledge.” She also pointed out the fact that this nationwide DNA system could begin to become a de facto form of identification, saying, “If you consider DNA to be a form of ID, and the Supreme Court has already upheld state laws that allow officers to stop someone and ask for their ID, then this is the logical next step.”

The FBI claims that it would not use the tools to take DNA samples unlawfully, but, even under lawful procedures, anyone who passed through a crime scene might have left DNA on-site and could be swept up in a dragnet. The NGI database already contains facial recognition data and other biometric details that were acquired, not from a criminal during the booking process, but through background check programs, which are sometimes required by employers during the hiring process or by government agencies in order to obtain a firearm.

Back in 2010, CNN reported that state governments across the US have been collecting DNA profiles of newborn babies, sometimes without their parents’ consent. Could profiles collected in such a manner end up in the FBI’s NGI database? What would happen if the DNA database were hacked by enemies of the US and used for research into biological weapons? Could information stored in a DNA database someday be used in some way to profile Americans?

Currently, law enforcement officers are required to send DNA samples to an off-site lab for analysis, making portable, rapid DNA collection unlawful, but prosecutor-turned-Congressman Eric Swalwell (D-CA) released a letter, cosigned by Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), floating the idea of changing the law to make it easier for on-the-go analysis, saying, “Existing processes require law enforcement to collect DNA samples from arrestees, transport these samples to a laboratory, have them analyzed, and then wait for results.  This entire course can take weeks, during which time arrestees are free to potentially commit criminal acts or disappear.”