Join 3,557 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


The Sins of your Fathers
March 18, 2009 9:57 AM   Subscribe

Familial genetic profiling of law enforcement DNA databases has already been used to succesfully establish both guilt and innocence. Legal and moral questions on these expanded techniques abound and are comprehensively explored by a speaker at a recent FBI symposium on the topic. In the author's words, scenarios previously limited to movies like Minority Report are unfolding quietly, before most of us have thought about the consequences. (Via)
posted by protorp (29 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
Uh...
Sometimes this works in the best way possible: to exonerate the innocent and convict the guilty. The most famous example of this led to the release of Daryl Hunt, a North Carolina man who, as 60 Minutes has documented, spent 19 years behind bars for a brutal rape and murder of a newspaper editor. Nine years after DNA testing first cleared him of rape, which happened 10 years after his initial conviction, the state ran DNA from the crime scene through its state database. The result was a near match to a convicted felon named Anthony Brown, indicating that Hunt could not have committed the murder, but a relative of Brown's might have. FBI rules at the time allowed states to share the results of partial matches within their own borders, and further investigation revealed that Brown had a brother named Willard in a nearby county. Investigators tracked down Willard Brown, offered him a cigarette, and, as soon as the interview ended, tested the DNA on it. It matched the DNA at the crime scene perfectly. Based on the partial match, Willard Brown confessed and Daryl Hunt was eventually freed.
Is there some reason why you would keep someone in prison for nine years with the full knowledge that he was innocent?
posted by delmoi at 10:05 AM on March 18, 2009


before most of us have thought about the consequences

This sortof implies most of U.S. society will eventually think about the consequences. I have my doubts, given how politically successful "tough on crime" stances that increase reach and powers for law enforcement seem to be.
posted by weston at 10:40 AM on March 18, 2009


Is there some reason why you would keep someone in prison for nine years with the full knowledge that he was innocent?

It allows the prosecutor to "bury his mistakes". Likewise I've wondered why state and US attorneys often seem to oppose DNA testing for people they've previously convicted, even (one could even say especially) in death penalty cases.
posted by clevershark at 11:12 AM on March 18, 2009


You have nothing to fear citizen if you have nothing to hide.

As the innocense projec puts it so well, safeguards such as the requirement of a judicial warrant and corroborating evidence are required to stop this tiurning ito a dystoptian nightmare.
posted by lalochezia at 11:37 AM on March 18, 2009


I do not really see the problem with familial genetic profiling in and of itself. If someone committed a crime and non-genetic evidence demonstrated it was committed by someone with a rare disease, is it permissable for law enforcement to focus an investigation starting with families in the area known to have this rare genetic disease? In my opinion it is, and I see this as an extension of that.

If the concern is with the potential abuse of the database or the information being obtained by insurance companies ect., that is a problem with genetic databases in general.

Also, I saw Minority Report ages ago so maybe I am missing something, but I fail to see the connection.
posted by batou_ at 11:39 AM on March 18, 2009


Also, I saw Minority Report ages ago so maybe I am missing something, but I fail to see the connection.

Yes, it was crucial to the implicit argument of "Minority Report" that the crime was never actually committed -- it was just going to be committed with near certainty. The science of genetic tests poses a completely different set of moral issues (at least for now).
posted by voltairemodern at 11:45 AM on March 18, 2009


Worrisome: I just had a very odd case in my lab (we monitor post-transplant levels of donor cells) . The DNA of a unrelated donor of bone marrow in a transplant situation showed up in the mouth of the recipient. This supposedly is almost impossible. Since police and FBI collect specimen usig a mouth rinse....
posted by francesca too at 11:47 AM on March 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


Legality aside, I think there's a two main ethical quandaries here

The first issue what I would call fairness:
* the genetic information collected winds up reinforcing existing racial disparities in the American justice system. i.e. because a higher percentage of the black population is arrested/incarcerated, a we have a higher percentage of the population's DNA in the database, and thus a black person committing a crime would be more likely to be caught through a DNA search than a white person
* a person who had a family member (father, brother, etc.) who committed a crime would be more likely to be caught through a DNA search
* from my laymen's reading of the article, men would also be more likely to be caught than women (due to the specific Y-chromosome test)

The second issue is a privacy/big brother concern:
* in theory as more and more DNA is added to the database, the government could reliably solve more and more crimes by simply checking a sample against a near entirety of the population, and in fact an obvious solution to the fairness issues would be to collect DNA from all citizens/visitors in the country
* in theory the DNA collected could also be used to search for traits, anything from propensity for a mental disorder to being left-handed

It would be nice if issues like these were discussed with any seriousness in mainstream society. Instead the likely outcome is just a slow, punctuated erosion of privacy in return for what one hopes is more accuracy in crime solving. I think one possible compromise would be allowing for DNA searches only for the most serious crimes. Murder or rape - sure, dragnet the database. Someone who urinated on the side of a building, not so much
posted by crayz at 12:00 PM on March 18, 2009


Crazy,

Your issues for the most part are a quesiton with DNA databases in general. (And I agree there are many moral/ethical considerations that need to be addressed.) However, assuming that DNA forensics is going to be with us for a long long time, what specifically are the problems with familial genetic profiling? I guess this is a problem I had with the article in general: It appears to be about familial genetic profiling, but then focuses on issues with any/all DNA databases.
posted by batou_ at 12:24 PM on March 18, 2009


The DNA of a unrelated donor of bone marrow in a transplant situation showed up in the mouth of the recipient. This supposedly is almost impossible.

I'm going to assume that there's some unclarified detail about your lab procedure that would indeed make this impossible, because otherwise somebody's going to have to start explaining all the very common ways in which someone's DNA can end up in somebody else's mouth.
posted by Faint of Butt at 12:27 PM on March 18, 2009


I actually saw Morrissey (the DA of Denver) speak at a conference on this subject, and his ardor for the technology is downright creepy.

My fear from a privacy point of view is that if you can deduce consanguinity from DNA samples, then by sampling one person you effectively have access to private data about members of his or her family. (In practice, only male members.) Do you want information about your genetic makeup available in a police database because your uncle gets arrested?

The other big issue (mentioned in the article) is the racial disparity in the volume of sampled data. If the police can legally perform familial DNA matching, something like 1 in 5 African-American citizens are effectively in the database, while less than 1 in 20 Caucasians are. (Stats are mentioned in the article but I've seen them elsewhere as well.) If you want to argue for a surveillance state that databanks innocent people, go ahead -- but can you really argue for one that massively, preferentially captures innocent citizens of a particular race?
posted by hayvac at 12:37 PM on March 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm going to assume that there's some unclarified detail about your lab procedure that would indeed make this impossible, because otherwise somebody's going to have to start explaining all the very common ways in which someone's DNA can end up in somebody else's mouth

You rinse and spit several times before the actual specimen is collected: any residual "alien" cells would be a very small percentage of the total, since cell exchanged in the common ways are swimming freely in your mouth.

The donor cells I mentioned earlier ended as part of the mouth mucosa several years post-transplant and were present at a level >95% of the total (can't say 100% in cases like this).
posted by francesca too at 12:39 PM on March 18, 2009


Francesca too, so it looks like bone marrow cells somehow transformed themselves into mucosal cells and replaced some of the recipient's mucosal cells (a number of which would likely have been killed off by radiation and chemotherapy, I suppose, so there might have been 'slots' for the donor cells right after the transplant)-- is that what you're saying?

Wow, talk about an exciting finding!

Maybe there is a fountain of youth: a bone marrow transplant from a much younger person.

Of course, the donor would need to be a totally perfect match so that the recipient wouldn't need to undergo radiation and chemo to eradicate their own marrow.
posted by jamjam at 1:14 PM on March 18, 2009


Hayvac,

Upon first glance at your comment I thought you were referring to the former Smiths frontman :)

Back on point, if they have my uncle's DNA fingerprint on file, they already have some information on my genetic makeup. What is at issue here is how they use that information. If they are using it to identify potential suspects in crimes I have no problem with that.

I appreciate your point on racial disparity, but that problem exists in the current database and is the result of a number of factors that have nothing to do with familial genetic profiling. Do you advocate the use of DNA databases to solve crimes in general?

Indeed, given enough time the use of familial genetic profiling will eventually eliminate the disparity. At some point in the future we (or our children, or our children's) will all have at least one family member that has their DNA fingerprint on file.
posted by batou_ at 1:46 PM on March 18, 2009


the above should read (or our children, or our children's children).
posted by batou_ at 1:48 PM on March 18, 2009


Is there some reason why you would keep someone in prison for nine years with the full knowledge that he was innocent?

It protects the legitimacy of the system — however tenuous — by holding to strict authoritarian tenets. It enriches those who maintain the system. The system no longer works for its benefactors, when someone can point out its mistakes.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:55 PM on March 18, 2009


The problem I see is how this changes the significance of the impact of an arrest on privacy. Not long ago, an arrest meant detention based on probable cause to believe the arrestee had committed or was committing a crime. Then, a search of the arrestee's person was added, for the protection of the arresting officer. Then, it became a search of the area immediately surrounding the arrestee. Then, police were allowed to search the arrestee's car, if they were arrested while inside. Then, the cops could search an arrestee's car as long as the arrest took place near the car.

In the context of DNA, the article describes a similarly slow but steady erosion of privacy rights. First they took the DNA of convicted violent felons. Then it was all convicted felons. Then all felony arrestees. Now an arrest can have implications for the privacy of your family members, too.

I think we need to realize that there's not some kind of unbridegable gulf between felony arrestees and us. They're not all inherently bad people and it could easily be us in their position if we're in the wrong place at the wrong time. An encroachment on their civil rights is a threat to our own personal liberties, too.
posted by Law Talkin' Guy at 2:39 PM on March 18, 2009 [5 favorites]


At some point in the future we (or our children, or our children's) will all have at least one family member that has their DNA fingerprint on file.

Can anyone shed any light on how many generations down the line a genetic legacy like this would stay detectable?
posted by protorp at 3:45 PM on March 18, 2009


jamjam- we were excited too, but a literature search showed us that it had been noticed and published before. The surprising part to us was that all the cell we obtained from the mouth rinse were donor cells: the replaced marrow produces stem cells, which in turn become white blood cells of different types, red blood cells and platelets. It must have taken a long time for the entire lining of the mouth to be replaced.
posted by francesca too at 3:46 PM on March 18, 2009


batou_ do you think the government should have the DNA of all citizens on file? If not, why not? Also if not, what standard should we use to determine who is and is not in the database?

"Having a family member once arrested" doesn't seem like a very sensible standard, but family testing would essentially do just that.
posted by delmoi at 6:59 PM on March 18, 2009


Worrisome: I just had a very odd case in my lab (we monitor post-transplant levels of donor cells) . The DNA of a unrelated donor of bone marrow in a transplant situation showed up in the mouth of the recipient. This supposedly is almost impossible. Since police and FBI collect specimen usig a mouth rinse....

francesca too, This isn't quite as cool a story as that, but I had my unborn son's y-chromosome show up in my spit sample (which I had submitted for a genealogical DNA test) while I was in my third trimester of pregnancy with him. Luckily, I did not attempt to commit a crime and frame him for it.
posted by Asparagirl at 11:26 PM on March 18, 2009


(Cause, I mean, they don't even make handcuffs that small!)
posted by Asparagirl at 11:27 PM on March 18, 2009


In March 2003, a drunk in southern England threw a brick off a bridge late at night, striking and killing a truck driver traveling along the freeway below. Armed with DNA from the blood on the brick... the police found... Craig Harman, who agreed to give a DNA sample. It turned out to match the DNA on the brick. Harmon confessed after being confronted with the match, and in 2004, he was convicted of manslaughter.

Why would throwing a brick off of a bridge get your blood on the brick? Wouldn't "the blood on the brick" belong to the man who was killed by the brick? Doesn't the author realize that this is annoying? A little more "Police found blood from two people on the brick, one matched the victim, and the other was presumed to come from the perpetrator" please.
posted by dgaicun at 2:41 AM on March 19, 2009


protorp

Good point. I am not sure of the frequencies of the alleles in question, but if they are rare and unlinked you would expect to lose 50% of the markers in each generation.


delmoi

I do not have a problem with the government having a DNA marker profile on file for all the citizenry. It is no different than a fingerprint. I would have a problem if it were the DNA sequence.
posted by batou_ at 5:49 AM on March 19, 2009


Your point also got me to thinking protorp. The article states the police looked for people who had 11 of 20 alleles in common with the sample in question. Again assuming a rare allele frequency on average you have 10 in common with your sibs and each of your parents. So, if you are the perpetrator of the crime, to get caught not only do you have to be unlucky enough to have a family members DNA on file, but you also need to share slightly more than the average number of alleles based on pure chance. Maybe the assumption of rare alleles is wrong on my part, or I'm forgetting some basic biology.
posted by batou_ at 5:59 AM on March 19, 2009


I've thought about this thread for a bit, having worked in BI nd having both ancestors & siblings who've been on the wrong side of the law. I'd love to know just what attributes are taken into account in such data mining efforts.

My genetic father ended up dying in prison. My stepfather spent a lot of time in handcuffs. All of my siblings have been arrested at least once. At least one sibling has spent time in prison. I'm the "black sheep" of the family - never been arrested, never been dishonorably discharged from any military branch, able to keep a job, maintained a professional career for over twenty years.

On the one hand, my family's probably a good example of Morrissey's model. On the other hand, I'm probably one hell of an outlier. It's hard to argue against a statistic - one doesn't beat the house - but what does one do when law enforcement comes knocking because your node fell in a suspect cluster?

I'm not looking forward to finding out, even by accident. The last thing I need to hear is that Hyperion or Analysis Services somehow thinks I might be a material witness, y'know?
posted by FormlessOne at 10:07 PM on March 19, 2009


I do not have a problem with the government having a DNA marker profile on file for all the citizenry. It is no different than a fingerprint.

Uh, you do realize the government doesn't have fingerprints on file for everyone, right? In fact, I'm pretty sure people freak the fuck out if they tried to get one
posted by delmoi at 11:49 PM on March 19, 2009


Sorry I did not type clearly. I was trying to make the point that a DNA marker profile is more akin to a fingerprint than it is to a genome sequence.

And, no I do not have a problem with the government having fingerprints or DNA marker profiles file for all citizens. What are the main concerns? Abuse? That is a concern with all the information that the government keeps on its citizens.
posted by batou_ at 11:37 AM on March 20, 2009


Uh, you do realize the government doesn't have fingerprints on file for everyone, right? In fact, I'm pretty sure people freak the fuck out if they tried to get one

California has a thumbprint on file for every California-licensed driver.
posted by zippy at 11:08 PM on March 23, 2009


« Older 21 years after a crippling motorcycle accident, a ...  |  A Life Well Wasted... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments