Thanks to the computer and electronic age, Americans live at a time when we have far less privacy than at any prior point in our history.
And while technology has made life better in many ways, it’s been hard on our fundamental constitutional rights, to include the right to be “secure in our persons, papers, and effects.”
Worse, far too many times our federal Judicial Branch has failed to uphold our constitutional right to privacy.
Usually in times like these, when authority has become — politicized — states step up and take back some of their lost sovereignty. Like now.
A red state and a blue state are pushing back against what they believe are unconstitutional violations of privacy: Montana and Maryland are the first (of hopefully many) states to pass laws forbidding law enforcement from accessing genetic databases without a proper court order in criminal investigations.
“These are welcome and important restrictions on forensic genetic genealogy searching (FGGS)—a law enforcement technique that has become increasingly common and impacts the genetic privacy of millions of Americans,” said the Electronic Freedom Foundation in a press release.
“Consumer personal genetics companies like Ancestry, 23andMe, GEDMatch, and FamilyTreeDNA host the DNA data of millions of Americans. The data users share with consumer DNA databases is extensive and revealing,” the organization noted further. “The genetic profiles stored in those databases are made up of more than half a million single nucleotide polymorphisms (‘SNPs’) that span the entirety of the human genome.”
In addition, the profiles can reveal both family members and distant relatives and ancestors, as well as “divulge a person’s propensity for various diseases like breast cancer or Alzheimer’s and can even predict addiction and drug response.”
Other researchers have gone so far as to say it’s possible that genetic sequences can also determine factors such as aggression, political and ideological beliefs, and other traits — again, all of which are private (and, frankly, not always accurate).
“And private companies have claimed they can use our DNA for everything from identifying our eye, hair, and skin colors and the shapes of our faces; to determining whether we are lactose intolerant, prefer sweet or salty foods, and can sleep deeply,” EFF continued, while other companies have said it’s possible for them to create images regarding a person’s physical characteristics and looks based on genetic information.
This is all problematic, however, as EFF notes further.
“Claims like these, which are often presented as fact, are dangerous because they can be seized on by law enforcement to target marginalized communities and can lead to people being misidentified for crimes they didn’t commit,” the electronic privacy rights organization continued.
These laws passed by Montana and Maryland aim to reduce the potential for genetic information to be misused or outright abused by some law enforcement agencies, which seems to be happening more often these days (because the people responsible get away with it).
“Maryland’s law is very broad and covers much more than FGGS. It requires judicial authorization for FGGS and places strict limits on when and under what conditions law enforcement officers may conduct FGGS,” EFF said, adding that the searches can only be utilized in cases involving rape, murder, felony sexual offenses, and criminal acts that present “a substantial and ongoing threat to public safety or national security.”
“Montana’s is only two pages and less clearly drafted. However, it still offers important protections for people identified through FGGS,” EFF says. The “statute requires a warrant before government entities can use familial DNA or partial match search techniques on either consumer DNA databases or the state’s criminal DNA identification index,” the press release says.
Both laws are obviously necessary, however, because of past abuses by law enforcement agencies regarding DNA database searches.
Because after all, the old adage always holds true: ‘Absolute power corrupts, absolutely.’