Immigration Matthew Guariglia Surveillance

The U.S. Government’s Database of Immigrant DNA Has Hit Scary, Astronomical Proportions

By Saira Hussain and Matthew Guariglia / Electronic Frontier Foundation

The FBI recently released its proposed budget for 2024, and its request for a massive increase in funding for its DNA database should concern us all. The FBI is asking for an additional $53 million in funding to aid in the collection, organization, and maintenance of its Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) database in the wake of a 2020 Trump Administration rule that requires the Department of Homeland Security to collect DNA from anyone in immigration detention. The database approximately houses the genetic information on over 21 million people, adding an average of 92,000 DNA samples a month in the last year alone–over 10 times the historical sample volume. The FBI’s increased budget request demonstrates that the federal government has, in fact, made good on its projection of collecting over 750,000 new samples annually from immigrant detainees for CODIS. This type of forcible DNA collection and long-term hoarding of genetic identifiers not only erodes civil liberties by exposing individuals to unnecessary and unwarranted government scrutiny, but it also demonstrates the government’s willingness to weaponize biometrics in order to surveil vulnerable communities.

After the Supreme Court’s decision in Maryland v. King (2013), which upheld a Maryland statute to collect DNA from individuals arrested for a violent felony offense, states have rapidly expanded DNA collection to encompass more and more offenses—even when DNA is not implicated in the nature of the offense. For example, in Virginia, the ACLU and other advocates fought against a billthat would have added obstruction of justice and shoplifting as offenses for which DNA could be collected. The federal government’s expansion of DNA collection from all immigrant detainees is the most drastic effort to vacuum up as much genetic information as possible, based on false assumptions linking crime to immigration status despite ample evidence to the contrary.

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As we’ve previously cautioned, this DNA collection has serious consequences. Studies have shown that increasing the number of profiles in DNA databases doesn’t solve more crimes. A 2010 RAND report instead stated that the ability of police to solve crimes using DNA is “more strongly related to the number of crime-scene samples than to the number of offender profiles in the database.” Moreover, inclusion in a DNA database increases the likelihood that an innocent person will be implicated in a crime. 

Lastly, this increased DNA collection exacerbates the existing racial disparities in our criminal justice system by disproportionately impacting communities of color. Black and Latino men are already overrepresented in DNA databases. Adding nearly a million new profiles of immigrant detainees annually—who are almost entirely people of color, and the vast majority of whom are Latine—will further skew the 21 million profiles already in CODIS.

We are all at risk when the government increases its infrastructure and capacity for collecting and storing vast quantities of invasive data. With the resources to increase the volume of samples collected, and an ever-broadening scope of when and how law enforcement can collect genetic material from people, we are one step closer to a future in which we all are vulnerable to mass biometric surveillance. 

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Saira Hussain

Saira Hussain is a Senior Staff Attorney on EFF’s civil liberties team, focusing on litigation at the intersection of racial and immigrant justice, government surveillance, and technology. Previously, Saira was a Staff Attorney in the Criminal Justice Reform Program at Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus (ALC), where she focused on disentangling federal immigration enforcement from local law enforcement through policy advocacy, litigation, and coalition-building. She started at ALC as a Berkeley Law Public Interest Fellow in the Immigrant Rights’ Program, representing immigrants in deportation proceedings. Saira received her J.D. from UC Berkeley School of Law and her B.A. from UC Berkeley. She speaks Spanish and Urdu, and is an avid baker and yoga enthusiast.

Matthew Guariglia

Matthew Guariglia is a policy analyst working on issues of surveillance and policing at the local, state, and federal level. He received a PhD in history at the University of Connecticut where his research focused on the intersection of race, immigration, U.S. imperialism, and policing in New York City. He is the co-editor of The Essential Kerner Commission Report(Liveright, 2021) and his book Police in the Empire City is forthcoming from Duke University Press and his bylines have appeared in NBC News, the Washington Post, Slate, Motherboard, and the Freedom of Information-centered outlet Muckrock. Matthew is an affiliated scholar at University of California, San Francisco School of Law and serves as an editor of “Disciplining the City,” a series on the history of urban policing and incarceration at the Urban History Association’s blog The Metropole.

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