Imagine a DNA database populated with data from every individual in society and made available to law enforcement. Such a database sounds ominous, especially if you’ve watched Black Mirror or similarly dystopian-themed programs. But such a DNA database could also be reassuring, suggests a team of scientific and policy experts at Vanderbilt University. According to these experts, a “universal” DNA database could be structured with built-in safeguards, and its use could be subjected to regulatory oversight.

The Vanderbilt team, led by bioethicist James W. Hazel, Ph.D., J.D., notes that momentum is building for a universal DNA database, one that could obviate the use of publicly accessible genomic data in criminal investigations. Dr. Hazel and colleagues suggest that a universal forensic DNA database for law enforcement could be more productive, less discriminatory, and more private.

They make their case in a Policy Forum that appeared November 23 in the journal Science, in an article titled, “Is it time for a universal genetic forensic database?” In this article, the authors argue that creating a universal DNA database might not be as dramatic a change as one might think:

“In the United States, for example, the combination of state and federal databases (containing genetic profiles of more than 16.5 million arrestees and convicts) and public and private databases (containing genetic data of tens of millions of patients, consumers, and research participants) already provides the government with potential access to genetic information that can be linked to a large segment of the country, either directly or through a relative.”

Recently, publicly available genomic databases belonging to direct-to-consumer genomic companies, like GEDmatch, have been used to identify alleged killers by linking their crime scene DNA to the genetic information volunteered by their family members. Outside of publicly open databases, privately held genomic data can still be obtained, too; a subpoena is all that is generally required.

According to Dr. Hazel and colleagues, law enforcement requests for private data are likely to increase as this method of forensic investigation becomes more widely used. While DNA is a powerful crime-solving tool, there is a great deal of uncertainty concerning the extent to which law enforcement agencies should be able to obtain and use public and private genomic data assemblages.

According to the authors, the development of a universal forensic database could alleviate some of the challenges and controversy. The authors suggest that such a database would overcome the biases inherent in today’s forensic databases, which are largely derived from samples from individuals arrested or convicted of crimes, which generally represent young, non-white populations; consumer genetic databases, by contrast, are predominantly made up of samples from Caucasian individuals.

Additionally, the authors suggest that the database could contain only a small subset of an individual’s genetic markers and reveal far less sensitive medical information.

“Most important to recognize is that a forensic database would only require a subset of genetic markers with little to no medical relevance,” the authors of the Science paper indicated. “Profiles would consist of a few dozen short-tandem repeats, with perhaps a modest expansion of the 20 CODIS loci currently used to improve the identification of degraded samples or the addition of a limited subset of ‘forensic’ single nucleotide polymorphisms to enhance the identification of more distant relatives in the rare instances in which familial searches were still needed.”

Despite the advantages, Dr. Hazel and colleagues noted that the creation of such a large database would likely be expensive and require a great deal of legislative oversight and restrictions for law enforcement agencies. However, the societal and economic benefits of a productive, less discriminatory and more private system would offset the costs.

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