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N.Y. Bill Targets Privacy Issues Around Criminal DNA Profiles

Municipal DNA identification indexes in New York have raised privacy concerns after a report showed they’re widely unregulated. One state lawmaker proposes to shut down these databases and create a single state-run index.

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Under a recently proposed New York bill, municipalities would no longer have access to individual DNA identification indexes because of questions about security, privacy and a lack of regulations from state lawmakers.

DNA identification indexes consist of DNA profiles acquired from evidence samples of convicted offenders who committed either a penal law felony or a felony offense.

According to the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, examples of these types of crimes include “reckless endangerment, petit theft, stalking, unlawful imprisonment, criminal trespass, sexual abuse, and endangering the welfare of a child.”

Once a DNA sample from a convicted offender is obtained, the sample is stored in an online database where it is routinely checked to see if it is a possible match in another crime.

The problem with municipalities having individual indexes, said Sen. Brad Hoylman, is that the state has no oversight of these databases, and most of the collected DNA samples are not expunged.

“What prompted the bill were reports of unregulated New York DNA identification indexes,” Hoylman said. “This led to questions about the quality of information obtained by these databases along with questioning what security measures are currently in place to keep these indexes accountable.”

The bill looks to establish a single computerized state DNA identification index within the Division of Criminal Justice Services. The bill would also require all municipalities to expunge any DNA records stored in a municipal DNA identification index 90 days after the bill is passed.

“Our position is to expunge records after a certain period of time,” Hoylman said. “The law only allows for one single database. These individual databases were never legal in the first place.”

According to a statement released by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New York, an example of one of these databases is the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner’s “Linkage Database.”

The concern regarding this database is that it doesn't conform to state law standards for DNA record maintenance and use.

For example, even if DNA testing excludes an individual from a particular crime, the ACLU said the convicted offender’s DNA profile would remain in the Linkage Database indefinitely.

Another cited issue with the database is there are no policies requiring DNA profiles to be expunged from the system. Also, DNA materials provided under a court order in a criminal proceeding can be used for unrelated investigative purposes.

Due to these factors, the ACLU said, there are no privacy protections for individuals whose DNA is currently in the database.

Under the proposed bill, the State Police Forensic Investigation Center in Albany would maintain the State DNA Index System database, which currently contains forensic DNA profiles uploaded by eight state-authorized laboratories. Other municipal databases that replicate similar tasks performed under the state database will be barred.

Furthermore, the legislation would also ensure that offenders' DNA records are expunged from the state database if charges against them are dismissed, presented in a non-criminal proceeding or improperly maintained.

“It is well past time for lawmakers to finally make clear that local governments are prohibited from establishing or maintaining municipal DNA identification indexes,” the ACLU said. “The New York Civil Liberties Union strongly supports S.1347 and urges lawmakers to pass it.”
Katya Maruri is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in global strategic communications from Florida International University, and more than five years of experience in the print and digital news industry.
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