Please Wait While We Call Up Your DNA File

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If some law enforcement officials have their way, you may never feel the same again about a traffic arrest. A federal commission is now studying how broadly to require the DNA testing of people who come into contact with the criminal justice system. Should DNA testing and cataloging be done only on violent felons (as is now the typical practice), on all convicted criminals, or on anyone who is arrested? Tuesday’s issue of USA Today reports that the National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence has apparently decided to recommend to the attorney general that authorities stick to current plans, forget mass testing and focus on obtaining and archiving the DNA information of the nation’s 1.4 million convicted criminals.

Though privacy advocates have long complained about the practice, the panel's reasons for sticking to the status quo are logistical rather than ethical: The task is overwhelming enough as it is, and the system is already seriously backlogged. But the practical problem will eventually be solved, which is why the commission is expected soon to tackle the ethics question. Comparing crime-scene DNA evidence with a bank of DNA information on individuals "is a boon for police looking for suspects and for innocents who can be eliminated from suspicion early in the process," says TIME senior writer Adam Cohen, "but it raises many privacy concerns." In this era of easy computer access and mass telecommunications, not to mention greed and profit, there are whole armies of individuals and institutions who stand ready and willing to get hold of a person’s biological identity. Which is why unless the commission comes up with a strong set of government standards, your traffic arrest, come the new millennium, could have unwelcome medical, insurance and employment repercussions.