Last October the Federal Bureau of Investigation opened a computer database called the National DNA Index System, which will eventually store DNA profiles of convicted offenders from all over the United States. The FBI says the database, which will combine information now held separately by individual states, will help fight crime by enabling police to link DNA from blood, semen, or tissues found at crime scenes to previous offenders. DNA profiles on the FBI database are encoded, but they can be linked to original blood and DNA samples commonly stored in state forensic labs. Critics have warned that the database threatens privacy, especially if it is expanded to include all citizens. Discover associate editor Josie Glausiusz asked Eric Juengst, a philosopher and ethicist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and a member of the FBI's DNA Advisory Board, for his views on the issue.
Do you think this database poses a threat to civil liberties?
It could, depending on how it's used. If, for example, it was opened to genetic researchers, then we could become involved in doing research on convicted criminals without their consent. And it should be limited to previously convicted criminals who are likely to repeat their crimes--sex offenders and violent criminals.
What do you think are the advantages of such a program?
The advantages for law enforcement are pretty clear. The police in any state could check evidence found on a scene with the national database and see if they can come up with a hit--much as they do with fingerprints.
Some people have suggested that the FBI is not to be trusted with a database like this, considering its record of investigating private citizens.
I think it's prudent for the American public not to trust the FBI, and to continue to insist on it being an open system with public oversight.
What if an arrested individual refuses to supply a blood sample on the grounds that it's an infringement of privacy?
I think they could probably make a case on constitutional grounds that it was an infringement of their privacy, particularly because it involves taking blood, an invasion of their bodily integrity. However, it's increasingly easy to get readable DNA from saliva and other tissues besides blood. And the police never have much difficulty getting people to spit on them.
What would happen if medical insurance companies acquired information from the database? Could it be used to deny coverage?
That is a danger. If people who have donated DNA to this collection do carry risk factors for disease later in life, the insurance companies will want to use that in their underwriting process and charge clients accordingly.
Behavioral geneticists might want to search this database for genetic traits linked to criminal behavior. Do you think such research is feasible or ethical?
It is within the scope of research topics that people do try to pursue. It also does have some ethical problems--it shifts the focus of our efforts to deal with these problems onto individuals and away from the social context that encourages a life of crime, such as poverty and poor education.