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Genetic Privacy

A recent NY Times article discusses how the police are increasingly collecting DNA samples from suspects — not with warrants or probable cause — they are gathering it surreptitiously from the abandoned DNA that people leave behind:

The two Sacramento sheriff detectives tailed their suspect, Rolando Gallego, at a distance. They did not have a court order to compel him to give a DNA sample, but their assignment was to get one anyway — without his knowledge.

Recently, the sheriff’s cold case unit had extracted a DNA profile from blood on a towel found 15 years earlier at the scene of the murder of Mr. Gallego’s aunt. If his DNA matched, they believed they would finally be able to close the case.

On that spring day in 2006, the detectives watched as Mr. Gallego lit a cigarette, smoked it and threw away the butt. That was all they needed.

The practice, known among law enforcement officials as “surreptitious sampling,” is growing in popularity even as defense lawyers and civil liberties advocates argue that it violates a constitutional right to privacy. Mr. Gallego’s trial on murder charges, scheduled for next month, is the latest of several in which the defense argues that the police circumvented the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

Critics argue that by covertly collecting DNA contained in the minute amounts of saliva, sweat and skin that everyone sheds in the course of daily life, police officers are exploiting an unforeseen loophole in the requirement to show “probable cause” that a suspect has committed a crime before conducting a search. . . .

“Police can take a DNA sample from anyone, anytime, for any reason without raising oversight by any court,” said Elizabeth E. Joh, a law professor at University of California, Davis, who studies the intersection of genetics and privacy law. “I don’t think a lot of people understand that.”

Under existing Fourth Amendment law, if you abandon something or expose it to others, then you no longer have a reasonable expectation of privacy. So if you leave trash on the curb for collection, the police can rifle through it without a warrant or probable cause. See California v. Greenwood, 486 U.S. 35 (1988).

DNA is sensitive information in many people’s books, but it is also very hard to keep contained. We leave traces of DNA everywhere we go — in hair and skin we shed, in saliva, etc. It is quite easy for law enforcement officials to obtain our DNA.

DNA is one illustration of where the current Fourth Amendment regime doesn’t work very well with information privacy. It works well with papers and things — we can hide papers away in our homes or in bags, and we can have protection in our homes. But information in today’s Information Age often is hard to contain. It is hard to tuck away. The result is that our personal information is increasingly in places where the police no longer need warrants and probable cause.

Originally Posted at Concurring Opinions

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This post was authored by Professor Daniel J. Solove, who through TeachPrivacy develops computer-based privacy training, data security training, HIPAA training, and many other forms of awareness training on privacy and security topics. Professor Solove also posts at his blog at LinkedIn. His blog has more than 1 million followers.

Professor Solove is the organizer, along with Paul Schwartz, of the Privacy + Security Forum and International Privacy + Security Forum, annual events designed for seasoned professionals.

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