Rapid DNA Testing: Verification or Collection Tool?

This year, the first local police precinct received and began using an on-site Rapid DNA testing device. Within 90 minutes, a cheek swab of any suspect can be run, exonerating or verifying their identity. If this program is a success, more criminal investigations will be solved with greater efficiency than ever before.  However, the limitations of the devices are pronounced. They cannot, for example, be used to help parse the controversy surrounding interpretation of complex DNA mixtures. They also will not directly help well-publicized evidence backlogs, particularly rape kits. They also increase fears regarding the expansion of government run DNA databases. As these devices become more prevalent, costs will drop as supply increases. In an age of increased data collection, retention, and access, genomic information will be harder to protect. Rapid DNA devices provide an excellent lens through which to view the genetic rights of arrestees, without bringing any new threats with their introduction.

The Technology

Previously DNA could take up to one month to run, but Rapid DNA devices cut this down to under two hours. This can eventually reduce costs and increase access to investigative techniques. The threshold of when to conduct a DNA test is greatly lowered – no longer does a sample need to be sent off-site and worthy of follow up, processing, indexing or other administrative hassles. This technology is limited in its applications because it cannot yet be used for samples other than a cheek swab, and while the device is simple enough to fit into existing police environments, proper training and understanding of the limitations of such devices is required.

Rapid DNA analysis does not require human interpretation beyond that of the original program creators. Law enforcement has no discretion in the matching process – a DNA sample returns a match or not. Thus far, no more complex evaluation has occurred. Single-source DNA analysis is trusted, well-documented, well-studied, and algorithmic even in its more traditional lab-based format. The biggest threat by primary users, the officer operating the machine in the precinct, is access and miseducation, or lack of education. Every person expected to make use of rapid DNA technology must understand that it draws from a database of known DNA samples and cannot run more complex analysis. Every person who uses this device must also understand which types of samples can be analyzed, crime scene evidence cannot generally be placed in the machine. Care must also be taken that samples are not collected or run without the proper authorizations, consent, and training.

The Broader Concern

In September, Congress passed H.R 510, the Rapid DNA Act of 2017, which not only authorizes the widespread use of Rapid DNA devices by local law enforcement, but commands the FBI to create guidelines such that DNA collected from participants can be uploaded to the nationwide CODIS databases. Concerns about Rapid DNA programs center on this data collection, but they highlight an existing issue instead of raising a truly novel one. DNA analysis technology, and the concerns of DNA collection, exist currently, but analysis can be slow, somewhat inefficient, and expensive, which so far has afforded more protections simply because law enforcement has been forced to make choices as to when to go to the hassle of running a DNA sample. This bar is greatly lowered when an officer must only walk to a desk in another room. This ease of potentially invasive police activity should trigger investigation, concern, and regulation. The danger of inadequate government response to rapidly changing technology that potentially threatens civil rights is a looming fear in our ever-connected society, but the solution cannot be the halt of such technology, especially when the technology doesn’t do much more than hurry a timeline.  Senator Hatch praised the bill, inadvertently mentioning a criticism of DNA collection procedures: “this bill will help law enforcement agencies solve crimes faster and help those wrongfully accused to be exonerated from crimes they did not commit—almost instantly. The Rapid DNA Act updates the statutory framework in how DNA samples are entered into the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System by allowing the use of this remarkable Rapid DNA technology.” As concerning as the idea that the innocent, or those simply arrested, are now on file in CODIS is, this has been a persistent topic of debate. In 2013, the Supreme Court held DNA collection of mere arrestees was constitutional. Justice Scalia gave a lively dissent, and perhaps with the expanse of the efficiency of the technology, cert will be granted on similar cases.  

We live in a world where our government already believes that contact with law enforcement should automatically link you to a DNA database. While Rapid DNA does not bring much new to fear, it does highlight that technical concerns in society often go ignored by the government until a reaction is needed. It is unfortunate that progress often involves the undoing of stop-gaps in the past.


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