Commentary | Point: The U.S. should establish a universal DNA database

A merican sci-fi writer David Brin once said, “When it comes to privacy and accountability, people always demand the former for themselves and the latter for everyone else.” Brin is a wise man. It’s time for the United States to implement a federal, universal DNA database for criminal investigations. With a universal database, everyone submits a sample for storage in a federal DNA bank, regardless of their previous run-ins with the law. In a country where over 1.3 million people annually fall victim to violent crimes, a DNA database would be a vital tool for the establishment of a fairer, more reliable, and more effective criminal justice system.

A universal DNA database would provide us with the ability to solve virtually any crime in which the perpetrator leaves hair, skin, blood, or other fluids at the scene. Under the current system, DNA evidence is only useful if it happens to match that of someone already in the database – that is, someone who has already been convicted of a crime – or if DNA is volunteered by a suspect. Though the police can get a warrant for a suspect’s DNA, they need to have other evidence of guilt first, which is often a serious impediment to the time-sensitive investigative process.

A universal DNA database can actually help prevent crime, not only because of its powerful deterrent effect, but also because it allows criminals to be caught sooner – before they re-commit. Since DNA testing can be done immediately, it would reduce the need for a lengthy search for suspects. A universal database would be a particularly powerful tool for catching serial murderers and rapists who are clever enough to commit their crimes in different jurisdictions, and who rely on the notoriously bad communication between different law enforcement agencies to remain undetected. It’s not just a numbers game, either – a universal DNA database results not only in more convictions, but in more reliable ones. DNA is frequently used to establish the innocence of the wrongfully accused. It’s far more reliable than eyewitness testimony or speculation about motive, and it is immune from police and jury bias.

In a justice system wrought with racial and religious discrimination, a DNA bank reduces the subjective power of individual police officers and lower-level court officials over the accused. A blanket DNA collection ensures that everyone, regardless of their gender, race, or religion, can be investigated under the same metrics and is subject to the same standards of evidence.

Unsurprisingly, many people find the idea of forfeiting such personal information to the state somewhat unsettling. Activists across the country have dug out their Big Brother posters in a rush to oppose the creation of such banks in the name of purported “privacy rights.”

Sure, it can be slightly disconcerting to find that the government has some identifying information about you. But the reality is, people regularly trust the government with far more sensitive information. One’s full medical history can be subpoenaed for legal proceedings, or even demanded for something as routine as a Medicare claim. A Social Security number reveals, well, everything. Yes, it would be bad if the government abused the DNA database and breached existing privacy laws. But it’s beyond pessimistic to insist that constitutional privacy protections would be insufficient when we already trust the government with far more valuable data.

In a country where sexual assault is committed every two minutes and over a third of murders go unsolved, it’s not just acceptable for the government to go ahead and make a DNA database – it’s exactly what we should demand of them.

Natalya Slepneva is a U2 Cognitive Science student and Riva Gold is a U3 Philosophy student. Write them at natalya.slepneva@gmail.com and rivagold@hotmail.com.


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