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FBI Plans Rapid DNA Dragnets

Winfried Rothermel/AP File Photo

The FBI is preparing to accelerate the collection of DNA profiles for the government's massive new biometric identification database.

Developers of portable DNA analysis machines have been invited to a Nov. 13 presentation to learn about the bureau's vision for incorporating their technology into the FBI's new database.

So-called rapid DNA systems can draw up a profile in about 90 minutes. 

The Next Generation Identification system, or NGI, the successor to the FBI's criminal fingerprint database, is designed to quickly ID crooks through facial recognition, iris matching, tattoo cross-checks and vocal recordings, among other unique traits.

But critics say aggregating DNA along with all this other data makes it easier for authorities to track the general population. 

Various FBI divisions "are collaborating to develop and implement foundational efforts to streamline and automate law enforcement's DNA collection processes" including at arrest, booking and conviction, according to an Aug. 19 notice about the industry briefing. The ongoing groundwork is expected to facilitate the "integration of Rapid DNA Analysis into the FBI's Combined DNA Index (CODIS) and Next Generation Identification (NGI) systems from the booking environment."

CODIS is the government’s central DNA database.

Rapid DNA Has Already Helped Cops Clinch Case

Rapid DNA analysis can be performed by cops in less than two hours, rather than by technicians at a scientific lab over several days. The benefit for law enforcement is that an officer can run a cheek swab on the spot or while an arrestee is in temporary custody. If there is a database match, they can then move to lock up the suspect immediately.

The Arizona Department of Public Safety uses $270,000 Rapid DNA machines developed by IntegenX and Morpho to develop investigative leads. Slides from a presentation reviewed by Nextgov indicate one potential application for the technology might include "Upload of Arrestee and Convicted Offender profiles at intake to a database (CODIS or other database).”

Rapid DNA analysis this summer helped clinch a case in South Carolina.

The Richland County Sheriff's Department identified and tracked down a suspect in an attempted murder by using a machine to process genetic material from the suspect’s discarded clothing, authorities announced.

According to police, Brandon Berry brandished a gun and demanded money from a man on the sidewalk in the early morning hours of July 29. Police said Berry then wrestled the man, shot him in the lower body and fled. After Berry was apprehended around 11 a.m. that same morning, police said scans of Berry’s clothing contained both his and the victim's DNA.

Booking Saliva Is Legal

The Supreme Court ruled last year that analyzing DNA from saliva, for example, is a legal part of booking a suspect, just like fingerprinting.

But Congress would have to intervene for rapid DNA results to be entered into the FBI’s databases. 

Current law states DNA in CODIS must be processed at an accredited laboratory. A legislative tweak is needed to allow DNA processed by a portable machine to be entered into the FBI's systems, bureau officials acknowledge. 

But some privacy advocates warn it's not a huge leap to go from using rapid DNA at the police station to using it out in the field on anyone's discarded DNA.

Civil liberties groups were not invited to the November briefing, but the initiative has been discussed at various public conferences.

“The FBI invitation to vendors is essentially the same presentation with a focus on the technical specifications needed from the developers,” FBI spokeswoman Ann Todd said in an email.

Privacy Groups Worried About Police Stop-and-Swabs

Right now, congressional inaction and cost are the only difficulties standing in the way of pervasive use, said Jennifer Lynch, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. 

"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,” she explained. “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."

"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," she added.

The civil liberties of minority groups, in particular, could be threatened by stop-and-swabs. 

"If the cops are stopping more African Americans or Latinos and they have the ability to collect their DNA just at a stop, then it means that the DNA database is going to be even more heavily weighted with DNA from immigrant communities and different ethnic minorities," Lynch said. 

FBI officials say their program does not impact any laws currently governing the operation of CODIS. Rapid DNA techniques in booking stations, “will simply expedite the analysis and submission of lawfully obtained samples to the state and national DNA databases,” Todd, the FBI spokeswoman, said.

“The FBI will continue to apply cutting-edge technology to combat crime and protect the United States,” she added. “At the same time, the FBI remains vigilant in upholding the Constitution, the rule of law and protecting privacy rights and civil liberties.”

Not Ready to Roll Out Yet

In March, California Democratic Reps. Eric Swalwell, Mike Honda and Barbara Lee wrote a letter requesting the FBI test rapid DNA analysis at booking stations to “assess its viability for broad deployment.” They argued the shift would help ID or clear suspects quickly and free up lab resources to reduce a multiyear rape kit backlog.

FBI officials say there are multiple matters, including changing the accredited lab statute, that must be dealt with before rolling out rapid DNA matching. The machines would have to be certified, for instance, and police would have to be trained to handle the tools.

“Given the number of important issues that need to be addressed, coupled with the need for legislative changes, it is difficult to estimate when law enforcement agencies will be able to search DNA profiles developed by a rapid DNA instrument,” Todd said.

In the meantime, the potential cataloging of hordes of DNA samples in a central government database is compounding concerns about domestic espionage. 

“Your DNA data could be linked to all the other biometric and biographic information about you that is already in NGI," Lynch said. "Because we discard DNA wherever we go, this allows the government the ability to further surveil people without their knowledge."

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