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The Troubling Rise of Rapid DNA Testing

Will new DNA tests help convict violent offenders or curb privacy?

Pierre-Philippe Marcou / Getty Images

Your DNA can now be read in less time than it would take to wait at a typical DMV. Unlike traditional DNA testing, which takes at least two days and requires processing at a laboratory, new and portable rapid DNA devices can give quick results anywhere in under two hours, since agents simply insert a “tagged” cheek swab into the microwave-sized machine.

The Department of Homeland Security plans to begin using the automated technology later this year to vet the identity and kinship claims of refugees and immigrants. Meanwhile, police departments across the country—from Palm Bay, Florida, to Tucson, Arizona—have rolled out their own pilot programs to test these miniature DNA labs. In December, results from a rapid DNA device were submitted as evidence in a successful murder prosecution for the first time. But despite the technology’s full functionality, its uses have been limited.

A new law could change that. A bill before Congress, introduced in December by Sen. Orin Hatch, R-Utah, would allow profiles collected by rapid DNA devices in the field to be connected to the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, which refers to the software and national database that houses DNA profiles from federal, state and local forensic laboratories.

During a Senate committee hearing in December on the Rapid DNA Act of 2015, FBI Director James Comey said that passage of the bill “would help us change the world in a very, very exciting way. [It will] allow us, in booking stations around the country, if someone’s arrested, to know instantly—or near instantly—whether that person is the rapist who’s been on the loose in a particular community before they’re released on bail and get away or to clear somebody, to show that they’re not the person.”

But not everyone is as excited as Comey about the way the world might change. Immigrant advocates, lawyers and civil rights groups have raised concerns that the portable technology exacerbates the privacy violations already posed by invasive biometric collection, increases the surveillance of vulnerable individuals and links a wide range of documented and undocumented civilians to the FBI’s massively expanding identification database. They warn that the technology represents a step forward in the construction of a nationwide DNA index and a giant leap backward for civil liberties.

Despite the fact that DNA stands among the most unique of individual identifiers, lengthy processing times and high costs have often made it a second choice for generating investigative leads in a criminal case or for verifying someone’s identity. Immigration officers currently confirm whether or not adults are related to the children they are traveling with in the U.S. through extensive interviews and documentation. But the method is far from perfect for preventing child trafficking or verifying kinship-based asylum claims. In 2008, the State Department suspended its family reunification program, citing widespread kinship fraud—the practice of claiming a fraudulent biological relationship with someone in the U.S. in order to gain entry as a refugee. The reunification program was reinstated only in 2012 with the requirement that asylum seekers submit to DNA testing, which takes weeks.

Rapid DNA would transform this process by giving officers definitive results about the likelihood of kinship between a parent and a child on the spot, DHS spokesperson John S. Verrico said. The technology will also aid agents operating in disaster areas to identify mass casualty victims, he added. Rapid DNA’s approach consists of miniaturizing the extraction, amplification, separation and detection processes—all without human intervention.

Some police departments say they are already seeing the benefits of the technology, despite the fact that their rapid DNA samples are not integrated with the national system. In Arizona, the Tucson Police Department and Pima County Sheriff’s Department have been running a pilot program that integrates rapid DNA analyses with the state’s DNA database. Vince Figarelli, the superintendent of the Arizona Department of Public Safety crime laboratory, said the department’s three machines have been used since March to solve cases involving burglary, an officer-involved shooting in which the suspect left blood behind at the scene and a sexual assault case.

“The technology so far has been very useful,” Figarelli said. “There’s no technical limitation to using it right now.”

But despite these benefits, there are several technological drawbacks to rapid DNA, including its limited sensitivity and high cost. Although many lawmakers have praised the technology for its ability to help with rape kit backlogs, rapid DNA cannot actually test rape kits since the technology can only test samples from a high-quality single source, explained Mike Benevento, the general manager of human identification at GE Healthcare. When compared with the price of traditional DNA-lab testing, a rapid DNA test is not cheap—approximately $350 per sample.

The FBI first proposed a system for a mobile DNA analysis technology that could be integrated with the national DNA database in 2006, but a bevy of legal, ethical and technical factors delayed its rollout.

The DHS planned to introduce the devices last October, but as of this week, no date for its pilot programs has been set. “The implementation of the program has been postponed until new voluntary consent forms are developed as well as operational protocols for translation, said Verrico, the DHS spokesman.

Until the current law is amended by a bill like Hatch’s, law enforcement agencies can only use results from accredited laboratories, rather than rapid DNA analysis, to search for matches in the FBI’s national database.

The DHS recognizes that its Rapid DNA program “may create controversy,” according to internal documents obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or EFF, a civil liberties group. In a high priority e-mail from 2011, a DHS officer wrote to colleagues that “if DHS fails to provide an adequate response to [media] inquiries [regarding RapidDNA] quickly, civil rights/civil liberties organizations may attempt to shut down the test program.”

Indeed, the extended wait times on rapid DNA’s implementation have given DNA experts pause—along with an opportunity to air concerns about the automated technology’s method and privacy implications.

In the past decade, the scope of DNA collection and storage has steadily expanded. “Many states have gone from collecting the DNA of violent convicted offenders to collecting the DNA of anyone arrested,” said Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. Over half the states now collect DNA from arrestees and the FBI stores the DNA of more than 3.5 percent of the U.S. population. And civil rights organizations say a Supreme Court decision last June—in which five justices ruled that taking DNA samples from arrestees without a warrant or conviction constituted a reasonable search—will further expand the FBI database. They point to warning signs like the 2015 omnibus budget, which allocated $117 million “for a DNA analysis and capacity enhancement program and for other local, state, and federal forensic activities.”

“There are serious questions about whose DNA is being taken by the police and when it should be searched and how,” said Penn State law professor David Kaye, who has served on the National Commission on Forensic Science and the National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence. Kaye added that he is not particularly troubled by rapid DNA technology but, instead, by a lack of proper policies governing its use. “Should we draw the line at arrest? Should we draw the line at conviction? Going to the other extreme, why not put everybody’s DNA up there [in the FBI’s database]?”

Until further details about the program are available, many privacy lawyers and forensic experts are concerned that the DNA samples indefinitely stored in the FBI’s databases could someday be used for purposes beyond simple identification or kinship testing, such as warrantless searches or to reveal information about a person’s health. Unlike the fingerprint, DNA has the potential to reveal excessively personal information about an individual that may be subject to misuse, said Stanley. “As we move into the future, many more correlations might be found between various genes and conditions,” he explained. Indeed, DHS documents obtained by EFF state that the military may be interested in using rapid DNA in the future to reveal information about individuals such as their sex, race, health and age.

Some immigration advocates fear that mandating widespread DNA tests for refugees could reveal secrets about parentage that should not affect a family’s asylum claim, such as whether a child is a product of an infidelity or rape. Further, they claim that kinship testing implies a literal and “nuclear” conception of family that excludes an understanding of other arrangements, such as those of families who take in orphans.

Jennifer Lynch, a senior staff attorney at EFF, says one of her biggest questions is what the FBI plans to do with the DNA sample after it is collected. She fears that the continued storage of genetic samples from asylum seekers of certain races or ethnicities could leave these overrepresented communities more vulnerable to false matches when the database is searched in the future. “We know that DNA matching can be wrong,” she said. “People can be suspects for crimes they didn’t commit. And if your database is disproportionately made up of one race or ethnicity, you are subjecting them to increased searches and the increased chances of false positives.”

In a 2013 privacy impact assessment for rapid DNA pilot testing, the DHS stated that the portion of DNA analyzed by the devices does not reveal any “sensitive information about an individual, and will not, under any circumstances, be used for decisions based on those criteria.” Manufacturers of rapid DNA have also stated that their technology does not reveal any personal information but could potentially be designed in the future to process an expanded set of loci—the portion of the chromosome analyzed.

“We’ve seen this with a lot of technologies,” Stanley said. “The more it’s used the more it can be used.”

Editor’s note: This story was co-published with Al Jazeera America.