Two major world powers, the United States and China, have both collected an enormous number of DNA samples from their citizens, the premise being that these samples will help solve crimes that might have otherwise gone unsolved. While DNA evidence can often be crucial when it comes to determining who committed a crime, researchers argue these DNA databases also pose a major threat to human rights.
In the U.S., the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has a DNA database called the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) that currently contains over 14 million DNA profiles. This database has a disproportionately high number of profiles of black men, because black Americans are arrested five times as much as white Americans. You don’t even have to be convicted of a crime for law enforcement to take and store your DNA; you simply have to have been arrested as a suspect.
Bradley Malin, co-director of the Center for Genetic Privacy and Identity in Community Settings at Vanderbilt University, tells IEEE that there are many issues that can arise from this database largely being composed of DNA profiles taken from people of color.
“I wouldn’t say that they are only collecting information on minorities, but when you have a skew towards the collection of information from these communities, when you solve a crime or you think you have solved a crime, then it is going to be a disproportionate number of people from the minority groups that are going to end up being implicated,” Malin says. “It’s a non-random collection of data, as an artifact, so that’s a problem. There’s clearly skew with respect to the information that they have.”
Some of the DNA in the FBI’s database is now being collected by immigration agencies that are collecting samples from undocumented immigrants at the border. Not only are we collecting a disproportionate amount of DNA from black Americans who have been arrested, we’re collecting it from immigrants who are detained while trying to come to America. Malin says this further skews the database and could cause serious problems.
“If you combine the information you’re getting on immigrant populations coming into the United States with information that the FBI already holds on minority populations, who’s being left out here? You’ve got big holes in terms of a lack of white, caucasian people within this country,” Malin says. “In the event that you have people who are suspected of a crime, the databases are going to be all about the immigrant, black, and Hispanic populations.”
Malin says immigration agencies are often separating families based on DNA because they will say someone is not part of a family if their DNA doesn’t match. That can mean people who have been adopted or live with a family will be separated from them.
Aside from the clear threat to privacy these databases represent, one of the problems with them is that they can contain contaminated samples, or samples can become contaminated, which can lead law enforcement to make wrongful arrests. Another problem is law enforcement can end up collecting DNA that is a near match to DNA contained in the database and end up harassing people they believe to be related to a criminal in order to find their suspect. Malin says there’s also no guarantee that these DNA samples will not end up being used in controversial ways we have yet to even consider.
“One of the problems you run into is scope creep,” Malin says. “Just because the way the law is currently architected says that it shouldn’t be used for other purposes doesn’t mean that that won’t happen in the future.”
As for China, a report that was published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in mid-June claims that China is operating the “world’s largest police-run DNA database” as part of its powerful surveillance state. Chinese authorities have collected DNA samples from possibly as many as 70 million men since 2017, and the total database is believed to contain as many as 140 million profiles. The country hopes to collect DNA from all of its male citizens, as it argues men are most likely to commit crimes.
DNA is reportedly often collected during what are represented as free physicals, and it’s also being collected from children at schools. There are reports of Chinese citizens being threatened with punishment by government officials if they refuse to give a DNA sample. Much of the DNA that’s been collected has been from Uighur Muslims that have been oppressed by the Chinese government and infamously forced into concentration camps in the Xinjiang province.
“You have a country that has historically been known to persecute certain populations,” Malin says. “If you are not just going to persecute a population based on the extent to which they publicly say that they are a particular group, there is certainly a potential to subjugate them on a biological basis.”
James Leibold, a nonresident senior fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and one of the authors of the report on China’s DNA database, tells Spectrum that he is worried that China building up and utilizing this database could normalize this type of behavior.
“Global norms around genomic data are currently in a state of flux. China is the only country in the world conducting mass harvesting of DNA data outside a major criminal investigation,” Leibold says. “It’s the only forensic DNA database in the world to contain troves of samples from innocent civilians.”
Lebold says ethnic minorities like the Uighurs aren’t the only ones threatened by this mass DNA collection. He says the database could be used against dissidents and any other people who the government sees as a threat.
“With a full genomic map of its citizenry, Chinese authorities could track down those engaged in politically subversive acts (protestors, petitioners, etc.) or even those engaged in ‘abnormal’ or unacceptable behavior (religious groups, drug users, gamblers, prostitutes, etc.),” Leibold says. “We know the Chinese police have planted evidence in the past, and now it is conceivable that they could use planted DNA to convict ‘enemies of the state.’”
As Leibold points out, world powers like China and the U.S. have the ability to change norms in terms of what kind of behavior from a major government is considered acceptable. Thusly, there are many risks to allowing these countries to normalize massive DNA databases. As often happens, what at first seems like a simple law enforcement tool can quickly become a dangerous weapon against marginalized people.