DHS Delays Refugee Rapid DNA Tests Aimed at Stemming Human Trafficking


The onsite, one-hour minilabs could help curb human trafficking, officials say

The U.S. government is technically ready to run DNA tests this fall on children at refugee camps, using portable machines, to ensure adults fleeing with them to the United States are actually their relatives. The onsite, one-hour minilabs could help curb human trafficking, federal officials say.

But old-fashioned paperwork and language barriers have gotten in the way of this technological advance.

"The implementation of the program has been postponed until new voluntary consent forms are developed as well as operational protocols for translation," Department of Homeland Security spokesman John Verrico told Nextgov in an email.

The plan was to distribute cheek swabs and “rapid DNA” desktop analyzers late this year after testing them at the overseas camps last fall. 

A DHS official this week said no firm date for the pilot program has been set, so commercial manufacturing and rollout have not been scheduled. 

Work remains to be done modifying existing fingerprint consent forms and on the mechanics of explaining rapid DNA to foreign language speakers, the official said, adding that the delay has nothing to do with the technology itself.

The mobile analyzers work by processing a genetic sample taken from the inside of an individual's cheek. First, the swab is inserted into a computer chip containing all the fluids needed to perform chemical reactions. Then, the chip is loaded into a machine that runs the reactions and verifies genetic linkages. 

Verrico described the department's rapid DNA initiative, developed in 2012, as "a test program.” The aim is to "improve immigration efficiency for legal kinship applicants, reduce kinship fraud, identify mass casualty victims provide for family reunifications, and conduct DNA watch list checks," he said. 

Right now, the government confirms foreign youths are related to adults accompanying them by conducting interviews and checking documents. The method is time consuming and imperfect, officials say. Traditional DNA testing by technicians in a laboratory can take weeks. With rapid DNA technology, anyone can run a test and confirm a match in about 60 minutes.

Refugee fraud became so much of a problem in 2008 that the government suspended a program that reunites asylum seekers with relatives residing in the United States. Retroactive DNA tests on 3,500 African refugees purporting to be related indicated fewer than 20 percent were actually family members, according to the State Department. 

In 2012, the family reunion program was reinstated with a requirement that applicants claiming a parent-child relationship must undergo DNA testing. 

The portability and speed of DNA lab-on-a-chip technology has raised hopes of safer streets in some corners and elevated privacy fears elsewhere.

Gene Sweeps Are Increasing

The use of rapid DNA is expanding throughout the government, particularly in law enforcement agencies, but there has been little transparency into some of the efforts. The Electronic Freedom Foundation on Aug. 19 sued the FBI to retrieve the government's plans for storing and sharing genetic data. The group is concerned people tested could be mistakenly linked to offenses they didn't commit if their DNA profiles are readily accessible in a criminal database.  

Some municipalities already are using the technology to nab suspects on the run who leave behind genetic evidence at a crime scene. But rapid DNA cannot accurately extract an individual profile from commingled bodily fluids, the group argues.

A year ago, the bureau met with industry to discuss banking rapid DNA results in the FBI's huge next-gen biometric database. The new system is designed to identify crooks by analyzing stored facial photos, iris templates, tattoo imagery, fingerprints, palm prints and perhaps eventually vocal recordings, among other traits.

Based on what is known about the DHS refugee pilot program, the potential for civil liberties violations seems minimal. The testing is voluntary. The biological material will be destroyed and profile data will be deleted after the research project is completed, the DHS official said.

No database is required, the official added, explaining the matching takes place inside the machine and all of the family members would be present during the extraction and analysis. 

EFF Senior Staff Attorney Jennifer Lynch said installing rapid DNA machines at refugee camps seems like a sound application of the technology. But she is curious about certain details not yet released. For instance, it is unclear what will happen to the samples and the profiles before the project ends, said Lynch, who filed the August lawsuit against the FBI.

Some biometric experts called the postponement of the Rapid DNA experiment unfortunate. 

"If you want to protect children who are being trafficked, you do the rapid DNA testing," said Janice Kephart, counsel on the 9/11 Commission. "It takes the guessing game out of the difficulties of he said-she said that have plagued kinship claims in immigration for years,” she said, and shortened and decision-making from months to less than 90 minutes.

For example, an officer standing in front of five people -- a parent, an uncle and three kids -- can confirm the uncle is related to the father and the father is related to the children -- on the spot, she said. 

Kephart, now chief executive officer of the Secure Identity and Biometrics Association, said sex traffickers frequently use kinship claims to smuggle underage victims.

"Oftentimes, it's kids who have been put into slavery and their identity has been taken,” she said. “There's a real value to” rapid DNA, “from a criminal perspective.”