Dna identification

In 1985, Alex J. Jeffries and his colleagues demonstrated that patterns of molecular markers in human DNA, or DNA fingerprints, could serve as uniquely identifying personal traits. This discovery was quickly applied by the criminal justice system, as way of definitively connecting suspects with blood, tissue, or semen from crime scenes. Shortly thereafter, governments at the state and national levels began authorizing the collection of DNA samples from individuals convicted of violent crimes who were considered at high risk for recidivism. By 1998, all fifty states in the United States had enacted such laws, and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was able to launch a national electronic database of DNA profiles from convicted criminals for use in future cases (Hoyle). In the interim, the collection of DNA for personal identification purposes has already become mandatory within the military and has become a mainstay of civilian efforts to clarify the identities of children and kidnap victims, to investigate family lineages, and even to authenticate religious relics. On the horizon, lies the question that civil libertarians anticipate with dread: Why not store personally identifying genetic information on everyone as a matter of course, for the advances in public safety and personal security that can be gained thereby?

Photographs and traditional fingerprints have, of course, also been taken, collected, and used for all these same purposes in the past. But unlike photography and manual fingerprinting, collecting individually identifying DNA patterns (iDNAfication) does involve taking bits of people's bodies from them: nucleated cells and their complements of DNA molecules. For those concerned about the ethical and legal status of body tissues and an individual's ability to control what happens to him or her through use of that tissue, this corporeal side of iDNAfication raises an interesting challenge. Clearly, questions of personal privacy are involved. But unlike most other disputes over body tissues, the issues here are not primarily matters of personal sovereignty.

For example, unlike involuntary sterilization or forced surgeries, the central concern with mandatory iDNAfication does not seem to be the violation of a person's bodily integrity. Compared with the other infringements of personal freedom that legitimately accompany legal arrest, providing a saliva or cheek swab sample seems negligibly invasive (Schultz). Moreover, unlike the creation of marketable human cell lines or the commercialization of organ procurement, it is not the exploitation or misappropriation of the person's body for others's gain that is centrally troubling either. Manual fingerprints and photographs also exploit suspects's bodies in order to incriminate them, without raising special privacy concerns. Moreover, consider the fact that it does not matter to an identical twin whether a DNA sample under scrutiny actually comes from him or his sibling: To the extent that the genetic information it contains describes both their bodies, the privacy of each is endangered.

In fact, the major moral concern about iDNAfication has little to do with whether the DNA analyzed is a piece of the person being identified, the property of the person being identified, or even is forcibly extracted from the person being identified. In most iDNAfication contexts, these physical, proprietary, and decisional privacy considerations are beside the point. Rather, the important feature of iDNAfication is what the DNA analyzed can disclose about the person being identified. It is, in other words, individu-als's informational privacy that is at stake in the prospect of widespread iDNAfication, and it is in those terms that the policy challenge of iDNAfication should be framed. What should society be allowed to learn about its citizens in the course of attempting to identify them?

Taking up this challenge means taking seriously the precedents set by society's use of photography and manual fingerprinting, since their primary impact on personal privacy also lies in the identifying information they record rather than the nature of their acquisition. If the collection of mandatory mug shots and fingerprint impressions are taken as benchmarks of social acceptance for at least some identification purposes, any iDNAfication methods that conveyed no more personal information than those techniques should also be socially acceptable, for at least the same range of purposes. Thus, where fingerprints of arrestees, inmates, employees and recruits are now taken legitimately, performing iDNAfication should also be justified, if its informational privacy risks were equivalent. Similarly, if society accepts the personal disclosures involved in using photographs on drivers's licenses and identification cards, it should be willing, in theory, to expose an equivalent range of genetic information in any legitimate forms of iDNAfication. One approach to the general challenge of iDNAfication, then, would be to ask the following question: If the ways in which photographs and manual fingerprints are used for legitimate identification purposes are accepted, under what circumstances, if any, might forms of iDNAfication meet the standard those practices set for the disclosure of personal information?

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