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The FBI really wants this DNA-scanning machine

The FBI really wants this DNA-scanning machine
photo courtesy of shutterstock

Swab, insert, press start. That's all police officers have to do to create a DNA profile with the RapidHIT 200.

Just a few years ago that might've sounded like science fiction, but now it's reality. Some law enforcement officers around the country are already using this machine to quickly generate DNA profiles that can help them solve crimes. Sounds great, right? But, there's a downside, too. The technology could be used to scan and store the genetic profiles of people who aren't convicted of a crime.

The machine is created by a company called IntegenX and is already being used by police stations Arizona, Florida and South Carolina to run DNA on samples and compare them to existing criminal DNA databases in those states. It's simple to use and can run a DNA profile in just 90 minutes. It can be effective, too.

In August, sheriffs in Columbia, South Carolina, used a RapidHIT to nab an attempted murder suspect.

There are other uses, too. The federal government could also use the gadgets to verify the identities of refugees in Turkey and Thailand seeking asylum in the U.S. And, that's not all.

Miles also says that federal immigration officials are interested in using rapid DNA to curb trafficking by ensuring that children entering the country are related to the adults with them.

While those uses sound great, RapidHit also has the potential to create a privacy nightmare for American citizens who haven't committed crimes. That's because the FBI wants to use it to expand an existing national DNA database that includes records from criminals and innocent people.

The FBI keeps a national database of DNA profiles. Most of come from convicted offenders but not all of them do. Of the 11 million profiles in the database, 2 million are from people that were arrested but might not have been convicted. State databases have a similar issue.

Every state already has a forensic DNA database, and while these systems were initially set up to track convicted violent offenders, their collection thresholds have steadily broadened. Today, at least 28 include data from anyone arrested for certain felonies, even if they are not convicted; some store the DNA of people who have committed misdemeanors as well.

Privacy advocates are worried that the simplicity of RapidHit machines will make it easier for police officers to collect DNA profiles and increase the size of these databases. It'll also make it easier to collect information from a police station - or even a police car - before someone is convicted of a crime.

Right now, police departments have to use labs to add their DNA profiles to the FBI databases. Testing DNA in a lab usually takes around two days. But, the FBI wants to change that. With the help of RapidHIT machines, it could make it a lot easier to share these profiles with federal authorities. That's a scary thought for the innocent people whose DNA profiles end up in the system.

The FBI's website says it is eager to see rapid DNA in wide use and that it supports the "legislative changes necessary" to make that happen. IntegenX's Heimburger says the FBI is almost finished working with members of Congress on a bill that would give "tens of thousands" of police stations rapid-DNA machines that could search the FBI's system and add arrestees' profiles to it.

This probably won't happen soon. The FBI and legislators who support the developing bill still have to get it passed, which is not an easy task. But, it's still a little scary to think about.  If you want to stay up to date with this issue, click here to follow the progress of Congressional bills online.

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Source: Mother Jones
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