The capture of accused serial killer Derrick Todd Lee through the use of DNA evidence reminds us of the promise and danger of the new DNA databases. Lee was identified using DNA left on the fingernails of one of his struggling victims. Yet family members of Lee’s victims have complained that Mississippi’s DNA database is not up to speed, a fact which may have delayed Lee’s capture. In the premier issue of The New Atlantis. an important new journal on technology and society, Christine Rosen (formerly Christine Stolba) has an important piece called, “Liberty, Privacy, and DNA Databases.” Rosen certainly acknowledges the potential benefits of DNA databases for fighting crime and curing disease. But Rosen also raises what I think are a number of legitimate concerns about the potential misuses of DNA databases.
Biotechnology really is taking us into a new world. That’s why a journal like The New Atlantis has become necessary. Christine Rosen’s DNA database article (the piece’s genesis was an NRO article) raises frightening possibilities you probably haven’t even considered. Someday you might be denied health insurance because of a DNA sample you thought you were giving anonymously to a private company or a public institution. The advent of a database holding every Americans DNA is entirely possible. If nothing else, Rosen’s article is worth reading for the bizarre examples. Don’t miss the false rape, staged with semen smuggled out of jail in a ketchup packet. Then there’s the guy secretly tested for paternity when his (possible) daughter swipes one of his cigarette butts. How about Iceland and Tonga selling their citizens’ collective DNA to a couple of private companies? If you’ve ever seen the film Gattaca, you’ll know what Rosen is worried about.
The civil-liberties issues in this DNA database question cut different ways. On the one hand, there are deep concerns about invasion of privacy. On the other hand, there is the right to sell or dispose of your DNA as you see fit. Ultimately, we need to balance the great power for good of DNA technology with the very real dangers. Even conservatives who think civil liberties advocates may sometimes press too hard against legitimate tactics in the war on terror need to take the privacy problems of DNA databases seriously. Rosen’s article is well worth a read.