Collecting DNA and National Security


Conservatives and Republicans in Rhode Island are still debating the justice of a law passed last year that would collect DNA from people not just upon their conviction for a violent crime, but their arrest.  See this Facebook post for multiple threads of the argument.

One of the first points made by those who favor such practices is that the collection is of a limited amount of DNA that can only be used for identification.  That’s not a very strong argument if your objection, like mine, is premised on the patent inability of the public to trust that government agents will only take what’s allowed, destroy what must be destroyed, and protect what they keep.  Still, for the general public it makes things sound reasonable, which is why the supporters press the advantage by saying it’s just like fingerprints.

That’s why I thought of the issue when I came across an article in National Journal titled “How Much Damage Can the OPM Hackers Do With a Million Fingerprints?.”  OPM stands for the federal Office of Personnel Management, and the issue (if you missed it in your news gathering) is that somebody (probably in China) succeeded with a massive hack of data about anybody who’s worked for the federal government, particularly those who’ve filled out extremely detailed and personal forms for security clearance.

Unlike abstract items of theft, like Social Security numbers, fingerprints can’t just be changed after a security breach, and…

Part of the worry, cybersecurity experts say, is that fingerprints are part of an exploding field of biometric data, which the government is increasingly getting in the business of collecting and storing. Fingerprints today are used to run background checks, verify identities at borders, and unlock smartphones, but the technology is expected to boom in the coming decades in both the public and private sectors.

“There’s a big concern [with the OPM hack] not because of how much we’re using fingerprints currently, but how we’re going to expand using the technology in the next 5-10 years,” said Robert Lee, cofounder of Dragos Security, which develops cybersecurity software.

How much worse would this be with DNA?  I’d argue that DNA collection should be kept entirely outside of purview of government, but if that’s a bit extreme, surely it’s reasonable to draw the net tightly enough only to catch people who’ve been convicted of violent crimes.

(Via Instapundit.)

  • Warrington Faust

    “The patent inability of the public to trust that government agents will only take what’s allowed, destroy what must be destroyed, and protect what they keep. Still, for the general public it makes things sound reasonable, which is why the supporters press the advantage by saying it’s just like fingerprints.”

    What can be done, will be done. Not all government workers are made of the “right stuff”. Any attentive news reader can probably recall a dozen incidents where the government has far exceeded it’s authority. Here’s one, is it “legal” for the U.S. military to employ mercenaries, even if they are obfuscated as “contractors”?

    • Warrington Faust

      Anyone who doubts “what can be done will done”; have you read today’s news. Bankruptcy records, credit reports, loan histories, school disciplinary records, etc., etc. are being searched to compile a racial database for each Zip Code. This info will be used to more fully “integrate” the suburban areas of this country with “disparate impact” cases. A worthy goal perhaps, but, secret databases? Theoretically, they will be put on line. But, all of them?

  • Live Free or Die!

    It’s too late. I have it from a GOOD source that the IRS has already collected the DNA of the Tea Party supporters though from our tax filing envelopes. Yet another reason to not file.

  • guest

    Is the government really going to come for you? You folks seem to have no problem thinning the herd yourselves.

    Texan shoots self at birthday party DALLAS — Authorities say a Dallas man accidentally killed himself while fi ring his gun in celebration at his 21st birthday party. Joseph Perez was pronounced dead early Saturday after being taken to Methodist Hospital. Police say Perez was celebrating having turned 21 years old on Thursday when he grabbed a gun and began shooting. His family took the gun from him, but Perez later retrieved it and accidentally shot himself. Police spokeswoman Melinda Gutierrez says alcohol is believed to have factored into the shooting.

    • Justin Katz

      I understand why you would want to be anonymous. How embarrassing it would be to be known for being this obnoxious.

  • msteven

    This is a tough one – there are certainly good arguments on both ends. I think I lean more towards those allowing the collection of DNA. I don’t understand the value of limiting to those convicted of violent crimes. A vast majority of those will already be in prison – what is the point of having their DNA? For me the value of it is identifying people to prevent/convict crime. Of course, there is abuse potential. Just as there is with people in military/police with access to weapons not accessible to the general public. Based on that same logic, are you against the ‘Patriot Act’? Or any police surveillance? Judges have power. Juries have incredible power. Both can be corrupted. The bottom line is in the area of protection/justice, doesn’t someone have to be trusted?

    I also think the reality that many innocent people have been convicted and then released based on DNA evidence should be considered a factor in this debate.

    Yet is an interesting subject.

    • Warrington Faust

      This is a problem which has been with us at least since Roman times:
      Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

      Perhaps we have gone too far already. Cameras equipped with facial recognition software scanning sporting events, mobile cameras that read your license plate and search for violations. I suppose these are arguably “preventative”. But, I think we are simply wowed by technology. Remember, they are searching, and I assume recording, people who are simply going about their business.

      “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated,”

      • msteven

        Yes, technology has trumped anything that “The right of the people to be secure … ” ever considered. For this conversation, how does DNA go past finger printing? Is being ticketed for a traffic violation via camera cross that line? As you said, in theory these are arguably preventative. And I’d argue that the government should have more firepower – be it arms and/or technology – than the general public. But I get the legitimate fear of what this power can do. Interesting stuff.

        • Warrington Faust

          “Is being ticketed for a traffic violation via camera cross that line? ” The cameras I am talking about go into deeper databases than that. They are mobile and can report if your license is expired, or registration expired. I don’t now what else. These have high penalties, at the same time states are no longer notifying you of expiration (looked at your license lately?) Sounds like “revenue enhancement” to me.

          “And I’d argue that the government should have more firepower – – than the general public.”

          The legislative history of the Second Amendment indicates the purpose was to arm the citizens for protection from a militant government. That is the reason for reference to “militia”, which at the time was the “Governor’s army”. One of the developments of the end of the Cold War was that Russia, after Afghanistan, considered it a poor idea to invade a country full of people with guns and Jeeps. That would be us.

          • msteven

            Yes, it certainly is the use of technology for the purpose of revenue-enhancement. In Ohio, I actually do get an email reminding me of when my auto-registration is due (since I pay on-line and requested it) but nothing about drivers licenses.

            I don’t know the history the Second Amendment, but today the general citizen is not allowed to have a tank or fighter jets as the military do.

            I’m no foreign policy expert but not sure I agree that the reason Russia did (does) not invade us has to do with the citizens having weapons. I think it has more to do with our military and economic power.

          • Mike678

            Actually, one of the arguments the Japanese military leadership (Yamamoto) in WWII had against invading the West Coast was US civilian armament. To paraphrase: ‘there will be a rifle behind every blade of grass…’

            That said, deterring foreign invasion was not the purpose of the second amendment. It was written to protect the population from its own overzealous government: “The Founding Fathers, having just broken away from Great Britain, understood the new federal government they were ratifying might one day become just as tyrannical. If it had the authority to control citizen access to firearms, then it could disarm them, just as the British attempted to do. This would make any attempts to restore liberties futile.”

          • msteven

            I can understand the 2nd amendment being put in place to protect from an overzealous government – and I agree. But I do not feel it is unlimited or in other words, to mean the govt cannot limit access to firearms. If that were true, any firearm regulation would be unconstitutional. To me, that is akin to ‘freedom of speech does not allow one to yell fire in a theater’.

          • Mike678

            Agreed, in part. But this can be a slippery slope. At what point does “sensible” restrictions violate the intent of the 2nd amendment? Many think a single shot .22 is more than enough for anyone. I’m not sure, however, that many would be inclined to practice civil disobedience / resist a tyrannical gov’t whose personnel were armed with automatic, high caliber weaponry when the citizens are armed with a single shot .22. Then again, many think resistance/rebellion unthinkable–as did many of ancestors who experienced it.

  • ShannonEntropy

    Unfortuantely the genie is already out of the bottle when it comes to “DNA as the 21st Century fingerprint equivalent”. The only question now is how soon the net will be cast far enough to include everyone arrested

    Here is a tip for ya all … if you don’t want your DNA to end up in CODIS or in the NCIC database, DON”T GET ARRESTED !!

    But a much *much* bigger problem than criminal-justice-system use of all biometrics is gonna be civil use. Already one of the largest professional service corporations in America requires every employee to verify their presence at work with a fingerprint scan. What if that database is hacked ??

    And have you crossed the US border lately ?? For a while now at every ICE station there are either fingerprint &/or retina scanners sitting there, just waiting for someone in Washington to mandate their use

    Anyone wanna bet if the ACLU is gonna hop to defending the rights of us ordinary law·abiding citizens when the gum·mint requires some biometric data be entered into some hackable database to get a passport ?? And then a driver’s license ?? And then …. ??

    • msteven

      Yes, that is scary but I think the government having this also has benefits to weigh too. Love your point about ACLU. Scary truth is likely that they wlll defend your rights – if your political affiliation ties with theirs. I think political affiliation is the most strongest form of discriminaton.

  • ShannonEntropy

    At what point does “sensible” restrictions violate the intent of the 2nd amendment? Many think a single shot .22 is more than enough for anyone …

    The first hand·gun I ever purchased, back in 1980

    ROSSI INTERARMS .38 special … double action … 5 round cylinder … wt 22 oz

    I still carry it whenever my son & I go gold prospecting in the State forests of Vermont or NH … ya never know when you are gonna have to tell a hungry bear to go find something else to eat for dinner ….