The FBI has amassed 21.7 million DNA profiles — equivalent to about 7 percent of the U.S. population — according to Bureau data reviewed by The Intercept.
The FBI aims to nearly double its current $56.7 million budget for dealing with its DNA catalog with an additional $53.1 million, according to its budget request for fiscal year 2024. “The requested resources will allow the FBI to process the rapidly increasing number of DNA samples collected by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security,” the appeal for an increase says.
“When we’re talking about rapid expansion like this, it’s getting us ever closer to a universal DNA database.”
In an April 2023 statement submitted to Congress to explain the budget request, FBI Director Christopher Wray cited several factors that had “significantly expanded the DNA processing requirements of the FBI.” He said the FBI collected around 90,000 samples a month — “over 10 times the historical sample volume” — and expected that number to swell to about 120,000 a month, totaling about 1.5 million new DNA samples a year. (The FBI declined to comment.)
The staggering increases are raising questions among
civil liberties advocates.
“When we’re talking about rapid expansion like this, it’s getting us ever closer to a universal DNA database,” Vera Eidelman, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union who specializes in genetic privacy, told The Intercept. “I think the civil liberties implications here are significant.”
The rapid growth of the FBI’s sample load is in large part thanks to a Trump-era rule change that mandated the collection of DNA from migrants who were arrested or detained by immigration authorities.
The FBI began building a DNA database as early as 1990. By 1998, it helped create a national database called Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, that spanned all 50 states. Each state maintained its own database, with police or other authorities submitting samples based on their states’ rules, and CODIS allowed all the states to search across the entire country. At first, the collection of data was limited to DNA from people convicted of crimes, from crime scenes, and from unidentified remains.
Even those categories were controversial at the time. When CODIS was launched nationally, most states did not submit DNA from all people convicted of felonies; the only point of consensus among the states’ collection programs was to take DNA from convicted sex offenders.
“If you look back at when CODIS was established, it was originally for violent or sexual offenders,” Anna Lewis, a Harvard researcher who specializes in the ethical implications of genetics research, told The Intercept. “The ACLU warned that this was going to be a slippery slope, and that’s indeed what we’ve seen.”
Today, police have the authority to take DNA samples from anyone sentenced for a felony charge. In 28 states, police can take DNA samples from suspects arrested for felonies but who have not been convicted of any crime. In some cases, police offer plea deals to reduce felony charges to misdemeanor offenses in exchange for DNA samples. Police are even acquiring DNA samples from unwitting people, as The Intercept recently reported.
“It changed massively,” Lewis said of the rules and regulations around government DNA collection. “You only have to be a person of interest to end up in these databases.”
The database is likely to continue proliferating as DNA technology becomes more sophisticated, Lewis explained, pointing to the advent of environmental DNA, which allows for DNA to be collected from ambient settings like wastewater or air.
“Just by breathing, you’re discarding DNA in a way that can be traced back to you,” Lewis said.
While this might sound like science fiction, the federal government has already embraced the technology. In May, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration offered a contract for laboratory services to assist with “autonomously collected eDNA testing”: environmental DNA testing based on samples that are no longer even manually collected.
Until recently, the U.S. DNA database surpassed even that of authoritarian China, which launched an ambitious DNA collection program in 2017. That year, the BBC reported, the U.S. had about 4 percent of its population’s DNA, while China had about 3 percent. Since then, China announced a plan aimed at collecting between 5 and 10 percent of its male population’s DNA, according to a 2020 study cited by the New York Times.
China has a record of abusing its DNA database for surveillance and crackdowns on dissent. The efforts have been aided by American technology and expertise. In 2021, the U.S. intelligence community raised alarms about China’s widespread DNA collection, including foreigners’ genetic information.
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