The recent cold case capture in California of the so-called Grim Sleeper serial killer involved a new scientific technique called familial or kinship DNA searching. The analysis examines a person’s partial genetic match to crime scene DNA as a pointer leading investigators to the individual’s parents, siblings and children. When the follow-up generates a perfect match – as reported in this case – it is known as a “cold hit”.
Sorting through the DNA of innocent people to reach suspects raises significant privacy issues. In the case of the Grim Sleeper, the partial match came from the son of the accused who just happened to already be in the California felon database for a recent weapons conviction. When the detectives explored the son’s family tree, their attention fell upon his father, someone who was not catalogued. Needing the dad’s DNA for comparison, investigators apparently tricked him into discarding a cup after taking a drink, thus leaving behind a sample of his genetic code. The prior existing crime scene evidence from years of murdered prostitutes was so sketchy and contradictory that absent the perfect DNA match, it is questionable whether this alleged perpetrator would have ever been apprehended.
The law is clear that when you walk away from a cigarette butt or anything you ate or drank with, you give up any ownership of your saliva on the property. You have no valid privacy objection to law enforcement lifting DNA from something you abandoned.
But what if law enforcement had a bullet-proof model for taking data collection one step further, by conditioning receipt of a government perk – like a passport or a fishing license – upon your voluntarily placing your DNA in a criminal database?
It may sound outrageous at first, but I can think of two models of public-private contract that led to a voluntary and Constitutionally acceptable trade for minimal personally identifying data.
My first example is the driver’s license. It is a privilege and not a right. Licensing in many states is conditional upon the driver’s promise to consent to a blood or breath test when there exists a reasonable suspicion of drunk driving. A state cannot force anyone to participate in a breathalyzer or blood test; since that would be an invasion of privacy. But if a DWI suspect refuses to allow measurement of their blood alcohol upon probable cause, they lose their right to drive.
Another example of exchanging some privacy for a government benefit is the pre- cleared passenger express lane at airports. (An Express Lane at the Airport? CBS News, June 16, 2004. Iris Scans, Red Orbit, November 5, 2005.) This was a pilot program in recent years where for a fee you submitted to a criminal background check and provide biometric information. In exchange, you received an ID and the privilege of breezing more quickly through security before boarding flights. I don’t know if the program still exists, but it was a model for what I am talking about.
I foresee objections from civil libertarians and privacy advocates that my proposal sounds like a national identity card. My reply is that this would be purely voluntary. It would exist on the premise that most people are willing to give up a small amount of privacy in exchange for something of value. I wish my idea could become part of a national dialogue, especially for legitimizing and streamlining the lives of legal immigrants and permanent residents. People whose immediate family committed murder need not apply.