FBI will collect DNA profiles of all immigrants held in detention

CODIS database, initially created to solve violent crimes by FBI, will be extended to all 40,000 immigrants currently held in detention centers in the USA. The move is described as “concerning” by Nature magazine.

Combined DNA Index System served – at least until now – as a forensic science tool since 1990. FBI stresses its role in analyses of bloodstains, semen, and unidentified human remains. The database consists of 20 so-called core loci: fragments of genome, which are highly variable between individuals and do not code any traits (such as health problems or physical features). Essentially, CODIS is intended to be a counterpart of fingerprints database.

However, that idea has profoundly changed in the last years. Next generation sequencing technology allowed relatively cheap sequencing of the whole genome (or its significant parts). Many public and private entities developed comprehensive databases of genomes – with the largest projects counting millions of individuals. Currently, unique regions of a genome can be used to retrieve the whole genome in a process called deanonymization.

A year ago, scientists showed a case where a woman participating in an anonymous sequencing project was successfully identified. The law enforcement already uses similar approaches in extension to distant family members of any suspected criminals, as was the case in catching Golden State killer.

Widespread collection of DNA samples to the CODIS database can potentially generate problems for immigrants. Nature magazine, in addition to privacy violation, lists concerns about false-positives. There are cases where the FBI will be working with low-quality data and will connect it falsely to one of the samples. There are also problems of secondary transfer, where DNA can be found at the scene of a crime because it was carried in paramedics and other people.

Above all, the efforts will simply lead to more inequity in law enforcement by subjecting immigrants to further, unmerited scrutiny

Sara Katsanis, bioethicist

Report: Lindzi Wessel (2019). Scientists concerned over US plans to collect DNA data from immigrants. Doi:10.1038/d41586-019-02998-3.

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