Scott Bell: Deeply conflicted by questions of DNA data privacy

(23andMe via AP) This image released by 23andMe shows the company's home-based saliva collection kit. Companies are playing into a rise in the profile of DNA itself as a gift item, from kits such as this to works of art.

Utah state Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, has proposed House Bill 231, which would limit how DNA information from home genealogical databases can be used by law enforcement to solve crimes.

In the Feb. 17 article, “Should police use home DNA tests to help solve crimes?” The Salt Lake Tribune reported Utahns’ answers to this question.

Strongly support: 34%. Somewhat support: 24%. Somewhat oppose: 9%. Strongly oppose: 21%. Don’t know: 12%

On the pro side, DNA databases can be very effective in solving crimes, including cold cases. I’m all for solving crime, finding missing persons and holding murderers, rapists, and other criminals accountable. Just as importantly, DNA can be used to exonerate people. This is great news if you’re suspected of a crime you didn’t commit, or better still, if you’ve been convicted and incarcerated for something you didn’t do.

The U.S.’s largest DNA database is CODIS, the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System. It has DNA profiles on 16 million to 20 million people suspected or convicted of crimes. In May 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of law enforcement to take DNA samples without a warrant, not just from the convicted but from those simply arrested. More than half the U.S. states and the federal government take DNA samples after arrests.

I don’t have a problem with a DNA database of convicted criminals, but I have a major problem with DNA testing of arrestees or suspects before conviction. Let’s say you’re identified in a lineup by an eyewitness to a bank robbery. You were home watching “The Italian Caper” on Netflix during the robbery, but the witness is adamant: It was you, by God! How would you feel about your DNA being taken and kept on file forever for a crime you had nothing to do with?

Now you might say, “I’m fine with it. I’m a law-abiding citizen with nothing to hide.” Okay, then let’s take a little walk into Wacky-land. Sometimes legal questions need testing by extreme what-ifs.

Let’s say that two generations from now the federal government totally breaks down. An authoritarian takes over, one party rules all, and that party begins to go after its political enemies.

Decree: “Every citizen must submit to DNA testing!” Your grandchildren duly comply. Why not? They’re loyal card carriers of the One Party. But the DNA results clearly show them to be your grandchildren because you were arrested and tested all those years ago when you were identified in that lineup. Worse, you are known to have been an elected official of the Two Party back then.

Your grandkids are rounded up, their assets seized, and they are sent off to hard labor and re-education.

Think it can’t happen? It did in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. Not by DNA, but it was essentially the same thing. If your last name ended in –berg or –stein or official records indicated you were Jewish, you were in the same camp your grandkids could be in two generations from now.

Back in the here and now, Hall’s bill is specifically aimed at private genealogical databases like Ancestry and 23andMe. As an Ancestry customer, you willingly gave your DNA for testing. “It’s all good,” you say. “I clicked the box to keep my DNA private.” Fine.

But did you click the box for your kids’ privacy, and their kids’ privacy, and their kids’? Your DNA at Ancestry is now a permanent record in their lives.

Now let’s look at it backwards. You have two adult kids. They were interested in their heritage so they had their DNA tested, one by Ancestry and one by 23andMe. And let’s say that two hours before that bank robbery, you made a deposit at the bank. While you were there, some of your hair fell out. The police collected a hair follicle. Analyzed it. You’re not in any DNA database, but, uh-oh! The cops just found two separate DNA records, one at Ancestry and one at 23andMe, and they both tie back to a single individual. You.

Unlikely? Highly. Possible? Absolutely. Good luck proving your innocence, especially since Paul Blart, Bank Cop swears he saw you at the bank around the time of the robbery.

I am deeply conflicted by this data privacy question. DNA databases are incredibly valuable, and not just for solving crime. They are vital for genomic research, archaeological and anthropological discoveries, understanding diseases, etc. I get it. But our desire to know our personal heritage or to contribute to scientific research makes our data vulnerable to misuse, and I have absolutely zero confidence this data won’t be used against us by law enforcement or government sometime in the future.

As a society we have only begun to grasp the implications of data. Until we fully do, we should err on the side of caution and take steps to protect our personal information. I guess that puts me in the “Somewhat Oppose” category, at least for now.

Scott Bell

Scott Bell is an engineer, long-time resident of West Jordan and a Democratic candidate for the Utah House of Representatives in District 47. He lies in bed at night pondering the implications of data collection and social manipulation.