Digital DNA & Privacy Gone Public

This assignment was for IFSM 201: Concepts and Applications of Information Technology class at UMUC. I received an A on my essay, which was based on the following question(s): 

Read the following article at https://librariansandlibrarymediaspecialists.blogspot.com/2018/01/finding-missing-information-and-capture.html.  Relate it to what you have learned so far and to the following thoughts on privacy of that information.  Will all the information about us turn into a big smudge? The data is in the database or in the document or somewhere? Are you comfortable with giving away some of your privacy for increased security? Why or why not? How far would you let the government go in examining people’s private lives? Or how much access should we have to certain aspects of others’ private lives?  For example, should States share criminal databases?  Many TV shows depict law enforcement personnel accessing readily accessible databases that contain all types of records about individuals –records about everything from address to telephone records to finances, insurance, and criminal history. Specifically, should a database of people paroled or released for crimes be made public?  Why or why not? What about those who have committed other types of crimes? Who should have access to the database? Why?

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There are no concrete answers to the question of whether exchanging privacy for security is either good or bad. Such a complex and modern conundrum can’t be contained to the binary categorization of being a “good” or “bad” thing. Let’s examine this through a few different lenses: how easily accessed personal information might benefit society, what its drawbacks are, and what the future holds for this realm of the so-called Cloud.

The rising popularity of companies like Ancestry and 23AndMe have made DNA detective work mainstream. Anybody can purchase a DNA kit, submit their sample, and uncover scores of data about their genes without ever having to leave the house. Accessing such huge pools of data on a site like Ancestry — which provides multiple types of records including birth, marriage, death, property, and even school yearbooks and church ledgers – can be immeasurably useful for an adoptee seeking a biological parent.  Sites like Promethease can even match this raw data of genotypes against Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs), or which are common genetic variations, to the SNPedia database to give customers a report on specific risks for diseases (U.S. NIH, 2018). Another example of a database which contains personal information that serves a beneficial purpose is the National Sex Offender Public Website, or NSOPW. According to its site, the “NSOPW is the only U.S. government Website that links public state, territorial, and tribal sex offender registries from one national search site” (U.S. DOJ, 2018). This massive database is searchable by name and/or location, helping citizens to stay aware, informed, and safe; particularly if they are a household with children.

So, what might be the drawbacks of all this readily available data? Ancestry and 23AndMe each boast over 5 million and 2 million users, respectively, and claim to maintain strict privacy rules to protect customers’ DNA (O’Roarke, 2017). However, in 2014, police were able to obtain a warrant to seize information from Ancestry’s customer database during a murder investigation. (O’Roarke, 2017). A man named Michael Ursy was wrongly identified as a suspect when DNA lifted from a victim’s body matched DNA linked to Ursy on Ancestry.com. (O’Roarke, 2017). As it turned out, Ursy’s father had previously donated his DNA to scientific research and these samples were acquired by Ancestry.com; police wrongly fingered Michael Ursy for the crime; he was later cleared of all charges (O’Roarke, 2017). An even broader impact of this familial matching, which Murphy (2013) defines as examining partial DNA to find a family member related to the criminal, is racial profiling gone digital:

“Because blacks and Latinos make up a greater share of those arrested and convicted in our society, it is their DNA that is most likely to be collected and searched. Yet that is not necessarily because those groups commit more crime. For instance, studies show that across the country, the arrest rate for marijuana possession for blacks and Latinos is double, triple or even quadruple that for whites even though the first two groups do not use marijuana at any higher rate than the third. If police make arrests in a racially skewed way, then DNA databases will also be racially skewed. And it will be those groups whose relatives and family members will be most likely to fall under suspicion as a result of familial-match methods.”

Navigating a world where everyone’s lives exist in a database is still unfamiliar territory. Some precedent is starting to take shape, though. The 2013 Supreme Court case Maryland v. King held that any arrestee may be subjected to DNA collection and that such collection does not infringe on one’s Fourth Amendment rights (Roth, 2013). A chief concern from the legal and civil liberties communities about this case is the fact that the Court maintained that DNA collection is no different or more invasive than fingerprint collection, thus potentially laying the groundwork for more states to embrace forced DNA sampling and for the DNA of innocent people to forever exist in a government database (Roth, 2013). It’s possible, if not likely, that a case will soon come along to challenge Maryland v. King. Sites like Ancestry and 23AndMe will also need to adapt to increasing concerns for privacy, especially with government officials like Senator Chuck Schumer calling for the Federal Trade Commission to investigate and require strict policies to ensure customers’ information is not shared with third parties (Silva, 2016).

American citizens have always been asked to exchange a bit of privacy for the sake of security: whether it was in the aftermath of September 11 when the Patriot Act was made law, or when parents must agree to background checks in order to volunteer at their child’s school in the wake of the now too-common mass school shooting phenomenon. Today, consumers exchange privacy for convenience or for information, as exhibited by resources like PayPal or Ancestry.com, respectively. At what cost does security, convenience, and information come? On a grand scale of time and history, the current Digital Age is still relatively young, so it’s safe to say the complete answers to these questions have not yet been answered.

REFERENCES

Murphy, E. (2013). The government wants your DNA. Scientific American, 308(3), 72-77.

O’Roarke, C. (2017, August 16). Solving a murder mystery with ancestry websites. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/08/jane-doe-murder-ancestry/536916/

Roth, A. (2013). Maryland v. King and the wonderful, horrible DNA revolution in law enforcement. Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, 11(1), 295-309.

Silva, D. (2017, November 26). Senator calls for more scrutiny of home dna test industry. NBC. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/senator-calls-more-scrutiny-home-dna-test-industry-n824031

U.S. National Institutes of Health, U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2018). What are single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). Retrieved from https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/primer/genomicresearch/snp

U.S. Department of Justice, National Sex Offender Public Website. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.nsopw.gov/en

 

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