Familial Genetic Profiling: Get Over It

razib khan, over at his new Discover blog site, briefly discusses an article in Slate which mentions familial genetic profiling, and this guy has the following response:

The article goes to list all the law-related reasons why using this partial-match system is problematic. The bottom line is that this new expansion of CODIS searches is infringing on some rights and privacy statutes. So some laws will have to be re-written if this is all going to become legal and above-board.

The bigger message is that the government’s always going to be doing these types of law enforcement expansions in total stealth mode, and it’s up to the public and their constitutional defenders to drag such changes out into the daylight and force them to be regulated.

All I can say is: How ridiculous! If law enforcement officials have a genetic profile of a criminal, and they note that a sample taken from a crime scene is almost but not quite a match to the known profile, why in the world would we expect them not to take a closer look at family members of that criminal? We know that siblings are more likely to resemble each other than randomly-chosen strangers – should we prohibit taking photographs of criminals to protect the ‘privacy’ of their relatives who may look somewhat similar?

What exactly are we expected to expect? Laws banning cops from taking note of partial profile matches? How precisely would that protect the privacy of the innocent, especially when no information about their own DNA is stored in the computer? The similarities between siblings are only statistical, after all. Possessing knowledge about one person’s DNA does provide statistical knowledge about the DNA sequences of their biological relatives, but I cannot see how that is an invasion of their privacy, nor how using partial matches to determine avenues of investigation constitutes a violation of relatives’ rights.

If a crime victim gave a description that is vaguely like that of a known criminal with an alibi, but he had a sibling who strongly resembled him, would it be a violation of that sibling’s rights if police took note of this? We’re quite willing to accept that. Why is this different?

Is it merely that genetic profiling is new and unfamiliar?

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2 Responses to “Familial Genetic Profiling: Get Over It”

  1. Clearly, you have a lot more to say about my post beyond calling it ‘ridiculous’ :)
    I’m not against the concept of familial profiling because I think it violates the rights of innocent relatives. I’m against the USE of familal profiling UNTIL there are laws that guarantee that innocent relatives won’t have to cool their heels in jail or be indefinitely detained until the cops sort out things like alibis, motives, etc., just because they got flagged by a partial match. My problem is not that law enforcement is expanding the potential and reach of their database. My problem is that they are doing it in a way that’s completely removed by legislative oversight. Which is also the point that the authors of the Slate article are making when they say, “It’s time for legislators to look more closely at familial searches of DNA databases,” in their subtitle.

  2. I’m against the USE of familal profiling UNTIL there are laws that guarantee that innocent relatives won’t have to cool their heels in jail or be indefinitely detained until the cops sort out things like alibis, motives, etc., just because they got flagged by a partial match.

    There are already long-standing legal principles that keep people free from imprisonment if they are circumstantially implicated in a crime. That objection is ludicrous.

    We don’t need special laws protecting relatives of people in DNA databases the same way we don’t need “Do Not Eat” warnings on bags of moisture-absorbent silica.

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