Are you an American with European ancestry, have done a high school project trying to trace your genealogy through a registry, or might know a third cousin or someone closer who tried out a DNA registry just for fun? Well, chances are, you can already be identified in a government or private database.
According to a study from Columbia University, about 60 percent of Americans who can trace their ancestry back to Europe (i.e. all white people) can be identified in commercial database registries such as AncestryDNA and 23andme. And if a relative as distant as a third cousin puts their DNA on a record, modern technology can link your DNA to them. This doesn’t include Americans in government databases used to record and track down criminals.
If the title alone upset you, you’re not alone. While a lot of people recognize the benefits of creating a universal DNA database (one where, from birth, your DNA will be stored and tracked, instead of the system we have now where you voluntarily give your DNA or mandatorily when you’re arrested for a crime), there are also plenty of people who criticize DNA databases’ lack of privacy and it’s Big Brother-esque type of governance.
What’s in a DNA?
DNA is the cell molecule that contains your genetic code. Except for twins and those born in multiple-child births, no two people have the same code, though part of your DNA is a record of your ancestors, while a part of your own unique code will pass on to your offspring and future generations. It’s part of your body, but scientists can get your DNA painlessly from your hair, saliva, or body fluids – basically anything that has cells. Since it is unique, your DNA can be traced back to you. At the same time, because it records your ancestry, it can be used to determine if you are your parents’ biological child and what race your ancestors were.
The Benefits of a DNA Database
Imagine if everyone were required to register to a DNA Database. Advocates for this use three arguments on why it is a good thing: security, health, and genealogy. In the United Kingdom, police authorities recorded unidentified DNA samples and kept them in the database even if the case remained unsolved. These are unidentified because the person who owned the DNA was not part of the 5.7 million citizens who volunteered their DNA and because they had not committed a crime in the past. This proved to be a useful practice because when new DNA profiles were added, it would match with unsolved DNA profiles, re-opening the case and providing officers with more information to solve the case.
The Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) is a US database that works on a national, state, and local level. With over 9 million records since 2011, it is the largest database in the world, coming from people who want to create a national database and people volunteering just for the fun of it. The CODIS has already helped police find criminals and missing people, as well as determine human remains. In 2015, the idea of a national database was considered for reasons of healthcare and wrongful criminal implications. In 2018, police caught the Golden State Killer who went in hiding after their crime spree from 1974 to 1986 thanks to DNA samples on the record.
In early 2018, the US government separated around 3,000 children from their parents at the US-Mexico border. After much criticism, they promised to reunite parents with their children and did so using DNA testing. They even found that some parents who claimed to be biologically related to a child were not.
The Bad: Security over Privacy?
Despite DNA testing’s ability to reunite long-lost family members, detect potential health issues, and help administer security measures, there are some sacrifices to be made for giving up DNA that makes up a huge and unalterable part of your identity, most of which lies in your security.
While DNA testing allowed the government to reunite children with their parents at the border, the government now has more DNA samples and biological profiles they can use to track children for the rest of their lives. Children are not old enough to give consent to a DNA collection procedure and their parents, separated from them, cannot give their consent.
There’s also the question of who is managing the database. In the wrong hands, hypothetically speaking, everyone’s DNA could fall into the wrong hands. Hackers could make millions hacking into databases to switch DNA samples with innocent people. In June 2018, MyHeritage’s security was hacked. While the website says that sensitive DNA data was stored in a separate system and has extra layers of security, the fact that they’re saying they “have no reason to believe those systems have been compromised” instead of simply saying it hasn’t been compromised is not very reassuring.
Californiahospitals are legally allowed to collectDNA from babies born after 1983. Doctors use it to determine congenital disorders to provide early diagnosis that could save lives, and so far, it’s saved around 2,500 children from 2015 to 2017. However, instead of getting five drops of blood – enough to make a sure diagnosis – they collect six drops, the sixth going to the state’s DNA sample.
Various states do this, though some destroy samples after a year or until the person turns 21. However, California has no time limit. It is kept in a database where private organizations can use it for research purposes. Parents can request to destroy their child’s sample, but that’s assuming they know about the DNA sample in the first place – something the law does not require telling them in the first place. So, if you’re a parent that had a child in California in the last 35 years, chances are, their DNA has been in a database for a while now.
How does it feel like to know your DNA is in some database even if you’ve never willingly given up a sample? Do you think it’s a good thing, providing you more safety and security in the future and assurance that, when a crime is committed, they can easily determine it’s not your DNA in the scene of the crime? Or do you feel worried and angry that a big part of your person was taken without your consent? Either way, given the developments in DNA technology, it may soon enter government officials’ minds once more to consider making this a requirement for all citizens.