Reviews | The police used a rape victim’s DNA to arrest her later? Genetic databases need to be redesigned.
Boudin’s office said Tuesday it had dismissed the case against the woman, and the San Francisco Police Department said it was investigating the crime lab’s practices. But it’s not too early to say: Including the DNA of rape victims in a database used for criminal identification is a violation of privacy, period. It doesn’t matter that the rape victim herself commits a crime later.
The majority of sexual assaults go unreported, often because survivors want to avoid the added trauma of a physical examination to gather evidence. Boudin was certainly right to sound the alarm about how the potential misuse of their DNA could further discourage survivors from contacting the police.
This episode offers insight into the privacy concerns – as well as issues such as consent to data collection – that will arise as genetic information is stored in ever-increasing quantities and governments take an increasing interest in more to their exploitation.
According to Boudin, it appears that people reporting sexual assaults were not told that their own DNA, included in the rape kit, would be used for any purpose other than investigating their assault. Additionally, he suggested it could be a statewide problem, though several other California departments have denied using rape kit DNA in unrelated investigations.
But it does do not appear that these rape victims were explicitly told that the information could be used for criminal identification, nor were they given the opportunity to refuse permission for such use. Either way, there’s a tremendous body of research, including my own, showing how difficult it is for people to understand terms and conditions at the best of times, let alone as a result of a sexual assault.
Let’s give the San Francisco Police Department the benefit of the doubt – maybe it will turn out that they are using a unique DNA database that cannot tell survivors from perpetrators. Separate databases should be mandatory because the potential problems are so obvious.
The problem is that law enforcement‘s appetite for genetic material is insatiable. In California, that hunger was fueled by voters, who approved Proposition 69 in 2004, allowing police to take DNA samples from anyone they arrest, even if they are not ultimately charged with ‘a crime. The program is decentralized (local jurisdictions collect most of this data, which is not necessarily shared at the state level), and all monitoring of these databases occurs at the county level.
The government’s eagerness for genetic material has only increased since 2018, with the identification of the Golden State Killer, a serial rapist and murderer in the 1970s and 1980s whose case had gone cold until what the Sacramento District Attorney is teaming up with forensic genealogists to submit the suspect’s DNA. to a consumer genomics database.
Using DNA to identify long-wanted suspects in order to bring them to justice is perhaps an ideal example of this technology in action, but it also provides justification for unchecked DNA collection. After all, the Golden State Killer has lived anonymously among us for over three decades – what other serial killers could be hiding among us? If you have nothing to hide, the saying goes, then you have nothing to worry about having your DNA added to a database to identify criminal suspects.
As the Golden State Killer case showed, people themselves do much of the DNA database building voluntarily — using popular services like 23andMe and Ancestry to trace their own genealogy through genetic tests. The phenomenon has exploded, exceeding the regulations governing the industry.
The result is that, although only a relatively small number of people in the United States have participated in these genetic testing services, the family networks they reveal are incredibly extensive: analysts predict that soon almost anyone of European descent in the country can be identified by these relationships.
Given the rise of authoritarianism around the world and the growing power of artificial intelligence, it’s not hard to imagine how these mountains of genetic information could be abused – and already are – by the government. Chinese in its oppression of the Uyghurs.
The circumstances in which we allow the government to take DNA for identification purposes must be exceptional. Otherwise, the widespread collection, collation and comparison of DNA by law enforcement will only proliferate as officials sift through past, present and future family networks.
No one wants the alleged rapists and murderers to escape justice. But the widespread collection of DNA without cause and without coercion is not the answer.