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To Stop Crime, Share Your Genes

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Lend your genes to a national genetic database?

Brian Rea

Perhaps the only thing more surprising than President Obama’s decision to give an interview for "America’s Most Wanted" last weekend was his apparent agreement with the program's host, John Walsh, that there should be a national DNA database with profiles of every person arrested, whether convicted or not. Many Americans feel that this proposal flies in the face of our "innocent until proven guilty" ethos, and given that African-Americans are far more likely to be arrested than whites, critics refer to such genetic collection as creating "Jim Crow's database."

In truth, however, this is an issue where both sides are partly right. The president was correct in saying that we need a more robust DNA database, available to law enforcement in every state, to "continue to tighten the grip around folks who have perpetrated these crimes." But critics have a point that genetic police work, like the sampling of arrestees, is fraught with bias. A better solution: to keep every American’s DNA profile on file.

Your sensitive genetic information would be safe. A DNA profile distills a person’s complex genomic information down to a set of 26 numerical values, each characterizing the length of a certain repeated sequence of “junk” DNA that differs from person to person. Although these genetic differences are biologically meaningless—they don’t correlate with any observable characteristics—tabulating the number of repeats creates a unique identifier, a DNA "fingerprint."

The genetic privacy risk from such profiling is virtually nil, because these records include none of the health and biological data present in one’s genome as a whole. Aside from the ability in some cases to determine whether two individuals are closely related, DNA profiles have nothing sensitive to disclose.

From The New York Times
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