Privacy SOS

The FBI’s plan to collect everyone’s DNA just got a huge boost from congress

In 2011, 1 in 25 Americans was arrested. In a few years, if the FBI has its way, the federal government will possess the DNA of all of those people and more. Under the radar of most lawmakers and journalists, the Bureau—with private industry and congress’ help—is pushing the most massive expansion of biometric state surveillance since the invention of the fingerprint.

Late last year, the FBI cut the ribbon on its one billion dollar biometrics database, called Next Generation Identification. Since NGI’s official launch, state and local law enforcement officials have been encouraged to submit face prints, fingerprints, retina scans, photos of tattoos and scars, and DNA collected from people nationwide to the FBI’s central database. Those state and local officials can also search against the FBI’s biometrics store, if they want to identify someone. With NGI in full operation, the scary future of Minority Report infamy takes a giant leap forward into the world of non-fiction. 

The FBI has big goals when it comes to biometric databases, but they can’t achieve them without the active buy-in and assistance of state and local police. That’s part of the reason why Department of Justice and Homeland Security grant programs have paid for state and local police nationwide to purchase biometric capturing and processing technologies. Ask your local police department about their electronic fingerprint readers, for example, and you’re likely to hear that they were purchased with federal funds. Those devices make it easy for police and sheriffs nationwide to submit fingerprints to the FBI—rapidly, from the field, and with very little effort on behalf of departments.

The same is about to be true with DNA, thanks to funds congress has made available specifically for state and local law enforcement to purchase rapid DNA processing machines. The 2015 omnibus budget includes this provision: “$117,000,000 is for a DNA analysis and capacity enhancement program and for other local, State, and Federal forensic activities.” These funds will presumably help the FBI achieve goals it laid out in August 2014, as relayed here by Nextgov—one of the few news outlets to cover the FBI’s DNA collection plans:

Various FBI divisions "are collaborating to develop and implement foundational efforts to streamline and automate law enforcement's DNA collection processes" including at arrest, booking and conviction, according to an Aug. 19 notice about the industry briefing. The ongoing groundwork is expected to facilitate the "integration of Rapid DNA Analysis into the FBI's Combined DNA Index (CODIS) and Next Generation Identification (NGI) systems from the booking environment.”

Current law requires state and local police to send collected DNA to an accredited lab before it is shipped off to the feds. But the FBI wants a “legislative tweak” to enable police to skip that step, and send DNA from arrestees directly to the federal CODIS database. If the feds succeed in changing the law, we’re in trouble: corporations and congress are already laying the groundwork for the logistic implementation of a nationwide DNA dragnet.

A cursory internet search reveals that General Electric, one of the manufacturers of rapid DNA testing machines, is already working with police to assist them in getting federal grants to purchase their technology. GE Healthcare is “sponsoring” free grant writing and application processing for police departments that want federal funds to buy its DNAscan™ Rapid DNA Analysis System. “Free to any law enforcement agency, this program includes: grant research, application assistance, narrative reviews, and grant alerts,” the GE website advertises. “The consultative nature of our service will result in grant applications intelligently tailored to grant program requirements; greatly improving the chance your department will ultimately be funded.”

The FBI and General Electric are likely very pleased by congress’ decision to allocate $117 million for DNA processing technologies grants for state and local cops. But should we be?

A terrible Supreme Court ruling in Maryland v King says to the contrary: we should be very, very alarmed. As Justice Scalia noted in his dissent, “Make no mistake about it: because of today’s decision, your DNA can be taken and entered into a national database if you are ever arrested, rightly or wrongly, and for whatever reason.”

That grim prognosis has now received a massive stimulus in the form of millions of dollars in grant funds for police to purchase the technology that will make such a program not just viable, but inevitable. Unless we stop it.

If you’re concerned about your state and local police obtaining federal funds to purchase a rapid DNA testing machine, and thereby facilitating FBI DNA collection from tens of millions of people nationwide, get in touch with your city or town government. Tell your elected officials you don’t want police using these machines to obtain DNA from people convicted of no crime. Tell them you know who will be most severely impacted by this incoming surveillance dragnet: black and Latino people, undocumented immigrants, the poor, and political dissidents.

It’s not enough just to talk about these problems. We must act—and the local level is where we as ordinary people have the most power to have a real impact. Demand that your local lawmakers provide genuine oversight of police technology acquisitions when those tools will be used to enable things like a nationwide DNA database. To our local authorities the money might seem “free” because it comes from federal grants, but the damage done to civil liberties and personal freedoms is dangerously costly. Don’t wait until the police already have the grant in hand to raise concerns about this issue. By then it may be too late.

© 2016 ACLU of Massachusetts.