By Becca Stanger, December 2013.
Overview. Operating on a local, state, and federal level, the Combined DNA Index System(CODIS) is the FBI DNA database. As of October 2013, the National DNA Index(NDIS), or the federal level of the CODIS, contained over 10,647,800 offender profiles, 1,677,100 arrestee profiles, and 522,200 forensic profiles. Designed to help solve crimes, this database has generated over 255,400 hits and has aided over 216,200 investigations. While this organizing system has played a crucial role in reducing crime by enabling more interactions in the law enforcement agency than ever before, it provokes numerous ethical questions worth exploring.
What is being organized? The CODIS database maintains digital records or “DNA profiles” for a wide range of people involved in criminal justice cases, including convicted offenders, arrestees, missing persons, and more. Specifically, these profiles are measurements of one or two alleles of 13 predetermined unique genetic sequence loci. These precise measurements provide enough granularity for the profiles to uniquely identify a single individual.
These resource descriptions are generated, often with polymerase chain reaction technology, from the original DNA specimen resources by accredited laboratories nationwide. Upon creation, the resources themselves—the specimens—are kept at the laboratories, while the resource descriptions—the digital profiles—are added to the CODIS database. No offender personal identifiers are assigned to the profiles; however, information on the submitting agency, specimen, and personnel is stored with the profile.
Rather than focusing on collecting resource descriptions, the FBI could have chosen to collect the original resources themselves. Presumably, though, this level of coordination of physical resources (e.g., shipping, storage, maintenance, etc.) would have placed an additional cost on the federal government and required legislative approval. Thus, it is understandable that the FBI would choose to minimize cost and effort by focusing on the resource descriptions alone.
Why is it being organized? In the past, law enforcement agencies were limited to solving crimes within their geographic region. A detective working on a murder in California, for example, may never have heard of a related murder in New York. The CODIS database organizing system encourages that coordination between law enforcement agencies in an effort to solve crimes.
With 10,647,800 offender profiles in the NDIS alone, though, the massive CODIS database required an organizing system in order to prove useful to the law enforcement agencies involved. The successful creation and maintenance of this organizing system has offered newfound interactions to a wide variety of government officials. In addition to law enforcement agencies, judicial courts, criminal defense agencies, and population statistics agencies can access the CODIS organizing system, enabling them to perform a wide variety of functions, including identifying potential suspects in criminal investigations, identifying missing persons, collecting population statistics, and exonerating convicted criminals.
How much is it being organized? As mentioned previously, the high degree of resource description granularity in measuring 13 specific genetic sequence loci enables DNA profiles to uniquely identify each individual in the database. That being said, the DNA profiles are not simply heaped into one massive database.
Instead, the databases are maintained on both a state and federal level. A new profile might be checked against a smaller state database as well as the larger national one. In addition, the databases are divided into different indices dependent on the DNA source, including an offender index, arrestee index, forensic index, and missing persons index.
This division of the database into separate indices poses a tradeoff dilemma, though. If CODIS did not subdivide the database into federal, state and source indices, it is possible the algorithm would be able to find more obscure hits, since the search parameters would be broadened. This increase in hit frequency might result in more investigations aided.
The tradeoff, however, is that the broadened search parameters would also necessitate a more complex search algorithm and a longer search process. This delay would most likely lead to fewer hits overall. Thus, in government institutions where time and resources are limited, it is more important for the CODIS organizing system users to generate a larger number of hits with subdivided databases than more accurate hits in one collective database. Categories in the CODIS organizing system help simplify the interaction processes.
When is it being organized? DNA profiles enter the CODIS organizing system when participating, accredited local, state, and federal laboratories submit them. Thus, the laboratory technicians handling the resource and resource description decide on a case-by-case basis how a given profile should be categorized and which indices it should be added to and checked against.
That being said, the lab technicians are given strict standards on how a given DNA profile should be categorized. These standards vary state by state depending on state law.
How or by whom is it being organized? Beyond laboratory and state involvement in CODIS, the FBI ultimately maintains and oversees the CODIS database. It maintains the software and search algorithms, performs searches throughout the system, and oversees strict quality assurance standards for all participating laboratories.
To avoid the risk of bias or error amongst lab technicians, the FBI could potentially choose to instead perform the laboratory processing and categorization themselves. This alteration, however, would present new challenges, such as new federal costs related to maintaining and processing the resources mentioned previously. In addition, pulling together all resources into a FBI processing center would necessitate a meticulous record of the resource’s originating state to ensure resource descriptions are categorized in accordance with state laws. The FBI’s strict maintenance of standards and laws is the best option for addressing the risk of error and bias.
Other considerations. The CODIS organizing system presents a wide range of intriguing ethical questions surrounding race, gender, criminal justice, and privacy. Perhaps the most hotly debated issue surrounding DNA databases arose when the private DNA testing company 23andMe announced that it would discontinue the sale of its genetic tests in response to FDA demands, prompting more media questions than ever before on the maintenance and use of DNA databases.
Likewise, many have questioned the legitimacy of the CODIS maintenance of DNA profiles. The ACLU, for example, has noted the possibility of “function creep” in the maintenance of a government DNA database which could lead our country down a slippery slope towards a “brave new world” where private genetic information could be collected and used in abusive, discriminating manners.
With the commercial surveillance of 23andMe and government surveillance by the NSA at the forefront of media attention, it is possible we will see more attention turned to the legitimacy of the maintenance of the CODIS organizing system in the coming years.