EFF Sues Justice Department for Records About FBI’s Plans for Rapid DNA

San Francisco, California (EFF) — The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the FBI to gain access to documents revealing the government’s plans to use Rapid DNA. The FBI said it found no records responsive to EFF’s FOIA requests, even though it’s been working to roll out Rapid DNA and lobbying Congress to approve nationwide use for more than five years.

Rapid DNA analyzers—laser printer-sized, portable machines that allow anyone to process a DNA sample in as little as 50 minutes—are the newest frontier in DNA collection and profiling in law enforcement. With Rapid DNA, the police can collect a a DNA sample from a suspect, extract a profile, and match that profile against a database in less time than it takes to book someone—and it’s all done by non-scientists in the field, well outside an accredited lab.

“EFF has long been concerned about the privacy risks associated with collecting, testing, storing and sharing of genetic data. The use of Rapid DNA stands to vastly increase the collection of DNA, because it makes it much easier for the police to get it from anyone they want, whenever they want. The public has a right to know how this will be carried out and how the FBI will protect peoples’ privacy,” said Jennifer Lynch, EFF senior staff attorney. ‘’Rapid DNA can’t accurately extract a profile from evidence containing commingled body fluids, increasing the risk that people could be mistakenly linked to crimes they didn’t commit.’’

The FBI has been working with manufacturers for years on a program to develop Rapid DNA and incorporate Rapid DNA profiles into a national DNA database used by crime labs and law enforcement agencies across the country. While some local police stations are already using Rapid DNA, the FBI can’t allow Rapid DNA profiles generated outside accredited laboratories into the database or the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) until lab validation rules are modified and Congress amends DNA laws—something the agency and Rapid DNA technology makers have been lobbying lawmakers for. 

Despite briefing Congress and discussing plans at biometric conferences, the FBI hasn’t disclosed full information about its Rapid DNA project. EFF filed FOIA requests with the FBI seeking documents from 2012 to the present about these plans.

DNA Image Source: Stefano, Flickr, Creative Commons

DNA
Image Source: Stefano, Flickr, Creative Commons

“Incredibly, the FBI told us it found no records responsive to our requests. Even though it has been fundingand working with manufacturers to develop the technology, and has a whole webpage devoted to the subject, the FBI said it couldn’t local a single document about this major effort to use Rapid DNA,” said Lynch. “The FBI shouldn’t be allowed to hide its plans to develop a technology that could have a huge impact on genetic privacy. We are asking a court to order DOJ to turn over documents we requested so we and the communities where Rapid DNA is being deployed can review the program.”

This report was prepared by Electronic Frontier Foundation.