Nearly a decade ago, Dallas police proposed a new program designed to get sex workers off the streets. Rather than just send them to gaol, police would set up shop at truck stops, accompanied by counsellors, social workers and nurses, and give the sex workers a choice of either prison or talking to a counsellor. But the program also had a grimmer, more ethically fraught component — collecting sex workers' DNA in hopes of identifying their bodies should they wind up dead.
As a recent study from Duke University points out, for vulnerable populations, such data can be a double-edged sword. The same data that could help them also risks violating their genetic privacy, or worse, incriminating them should it be abused. Police have created, in essence, a DNA database of sex workers. It isn't hard to imagine ways that could go wrong.
DNA databases have the potential to improve investigations into crimes impacting sex workers, who are more likely to be victims of murder than other populations, and often do not carry any legitimate form of ID. Just as a decade ago some parents turned to fingerprinting to help identify their children in case they were kidnapped, the Dallas police started collecting DNA samples from sex workers just in case, God forbid, they wound up dead on the side of the highway. But while this kind of data might help police bring about justice for some of the grisliest crimes, it could also impinge upon sex workers' privacy, coercing them into handing over information that could be indicting.
"The social ramifications of collecting DNA from vulnerable populations (e.g., children, vagrant youth, sex workers, and victims of criminal acts) are considerable, and questions remain unanswered as to how best to protect individuals from misuse of their voluntarily provided DNA," write authors of the new study published in the International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences.
Working with law enforcement, the authors went to Dallas to interview sex workers about the ongoing DNA collection program. Although many of the women said they do not trust police, they also said they willingly gave DNA samples because they want to be identified in the case of their death. The database has already helped to identify at least one woman, a sex worker who died in a Fort Worth ER in 2013.
"My guy, the few times that I did talk to him while I was on the street, he always used to joke about the fact that they were going to tattoo my social security number and my address on my foot so that if I died that somebody knew who I belonged to," one focus group member said. "That was one of the reasons why I did it. And then I've had two friends that have actually been identified through the program."
Still, some women were concerned about where their DNA might wind up.
"One of my concerns would be who would have access to this information, once they got the DNA sample or whatever, who else would have access to it?" another focus group participant said. "Like would it be just for this simple organisation or would everyone — police, doctors, you know like people who go and donate sperm, sperm banks, stuff like that — like who would have access to DNA?"
As a society, we are just beginning to understand how important the right to genetic privacy is. Information about our DNA, if not properly handled and protected by law, could wind up not only incriminating people in criminal scenarios, but affecting access to things like insurance and employment. Right now, legislation is winding its way through US Congress that seeks to undo some of the protections of the Genetic Information and Nondiscrimination Act. Many groups have spoken out against it, viewing it as a massive violation of public privacy.
The authors note that the police program has taken care to enact privacy protections, including only processing samples in the event of a death linked to a participant, and storing them in a facility not associated with law enforcement. But one participant suggested that a universal database, rather than one just for sex workers, and a program run outside of law enforcement entirely might make the program more egalitarian.
The Dallas program is a good example of the increasingly complicated position that DNA occupies in modern life. On the one hand, it can provide miraculous information that helps solve crimes, identify disease, and help tell us about who we are. On the other hand, that same information can be damning.
And while the DNA sampling program is billed as voluntary, the authors question how voluntary it can really be when the request is coming from the police. "At the time of DNA collection, the participants are either already under court supervision from an arrest or in a treatment program, which places them in a position under law enforcement authority, and perhaps less able to provide true consent," the authors write.
The authors point out that the only way to walk that fine line between benefit and disaster is to do so with careful consideration of all the ways things might go wrong. In this case, that means taking into account the opinions of the population the police are DNA testing, to make sure they aren't coercing vulnerable people into unwillingly giving up a right to privacy.