Published March 04, 2011
A portable, breadbox-sized scanner could map out your body's DNA in less than an hour -- and the Feds want it added to the agency's tool bag.
The device is being studied in the research-and-development wing of the Department of Homeland Security, which provided a special small-business contract to Network Biosystems (or NetBio) to build it. The agency will use the scanner at first on asylum seekers and refugees -- but civil liberties guardians warned that the device has explosive potential for misuse.
Sources at DHS assure FoxNews.com that evaluation of the DNA-screening technology will occur only after the department sets privacy and civil liberties safeguards -- a vitally important step to protect such highly personal information, insisted John Verdi, senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
"If it were used for routine criminal investigations, it would raise the specter of a national DNA database," Verdi told FoxNews.com. "There are a lot of legal and constitutional hurdles that would have to be overcome for it to be lawfully used."
For example, DHS must take care to dispose of the information it gleans from a DNA scanning search once that information has fulfilled its purpose, Verdi said.
And that's a white-hot issue in the public's mind, given the outcry over the advanced X-ray devices deployed by the Transportation Security Administration last November. Air travelers shouting "don't touch my junk" probably wouldn't be thrilled with a DHS agency scanning their DNA instead.
Indeed, the TSA felt compelled to make a preemptive statement after word of the device emerged. Curtis Burns stressed on the company's blog that the scanner is for use by a TSA sister agency, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which plans to use it to test for family relationships for foreigners applying for asylum or refugee status.
"TSA is not testing and has no plans to use any technology capable of testing DNA," Burns wrote.
Use in asylum cases is one thing. The true risk of the device lies in its sheer convenience, especially if the size and speed of the DNA scanner make state and local law enforcement agencies seek its use on a routine basis for everyday criminal cases, Verdi warned.
We'll find out shortly.
DHS spokesman Chris Ortman told FoxNews.com the agency expects to test a prototype of the rapid DNA screener this summer.
"The DHS Science and Technology Directorate expects to receive a prototype DNA analyzer device this summer to conduct a preliminary evaluation of whether this kind of technology could be considered for future use," Ortman told FoxNews.com. He was quick to caution that there are no clear plans for the device's usage.
"At this time, there are no DHS customers, nor is there a timeline for deployment, for this kind of technology -- this is simply a preliminary test of how the technology performs," Ortman said.
In award notices and its fiscal 2012 budget documents, DHS revealed that $100,000 was awarded to NetBio for development of the device, which analyzes DNA through a process known as short tandem repeat (STR).
"By creating an STR assay system that allows more accurate determination of kinship, DHS responsibilities such as granting asylum, processing applications for relatives to come to the U.S., and deterring child trafficking and illegal adoptions can be enhanced significantly," DHS said in a description of the contract on its website.
Current technology enables determinations of relationships between parents and children or among siblings, but it does not effectively prove distant relationships, according to the department.
To guard against misuse, DHS should meet the federal requirements for the protection of personally identifiable information stipulated by the Privacy Act of 1974, which imposes requirements and obligations upon agencies to protect the privacy of individuals, Verdi said.
"Those requirements and obligations have to be observed. The department would be well advised to vet this technology through its privacy committees and its internal privacy apparatus," Verdi stated, "but in addition, there needs to be independent oversight of a program like this. There needs to be oversight by lawmakers and oversight by citizens who are experts in these areas of technology, health records, and security to ensure the agency is not collecting data, retaining data, or sharing data contrary to law and regulation."
Officials at NetBio declined to comment for this story, telling FoxNews.com only that "NetBio's technology is still at a very early stage (too early to discuss)."
"When NetBio's products are nearing commercialization, the Company will be pleased to make senior executives available to discuss the technology with you (if you still have interest in the future)," the company added.
It seems commercialization of the product may arrive sooner than NetBio thinks.