Op-Eds


Give scholars access to the national DNA database

Erin Murphy, San Francisco Chronicle

By Erin Murphy, San Francisco Chronicle

Since 1998, the government has overseen the aggregation of a national DNA database that now includes 6.5 million profiles. The database includes material from both criminal offenders and innocents sampled in mass DNA dragnets. A lot of good has come from these databases: As of December, roughly 80,900 links between genetic profiles had been made. While better data are needed to quantify how many associations led to meaningful advances in cases, anecdotal reports clearly suggest that DNA has dramatically aided law enforcement.

But DNA profiling, like all new scientific methods, is susceptible to misunderstanding and error. For this reason, qualified statisticians (including UC Berkeley scholars) have sought limited access to DNA profiles to ensure that the government is properly using and storing critical genetic information.

Although government institutions routinely grant researchers access to highly sensitive information (under strict privacy controls), the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice have refused to do this for the DNA database - and even threatened to cut off access to any state that does.

This secrecy is unwarranted, because researchers are only seeking anonymous data, not any actual or identifiable biological samples. It is also inconsistent with the recommendations of a report on best forensic science practices that was issued last week by a blue-ribbon panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences.

Given the broad reliance on the accuracy of DNA matches - whether for criminal convictions despite contrary evidence or the recent approval of "familial searches" that comb databases for a perpetrator's relatives - the government cannot defend its refusal. Neutral, qualified researchers need access to this material to protect the rights of the accused and prevent conviction of the innocent.

Erin Murphy is an assistant professor of law at UC Berkeley School of Law. To read more essays on ideas for change, go to ideas.berkeleylawblogs.org.

2/24/2009