San Francisco - People have a Fourth Amendment right to privacy when it comes to their genetic material, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) argues in an amicus brief filed this week with the Supreme Court of the United States.
EFF is asking the Supreme Court to hear arguments in Raynor v. State of Maryland, a case that examines whether police should be allowed to collect and analyze "inadvertently shed" DNA without a warrant or consent, such as swabbing cells from a drinking glass or a chair. EFF argues that genetic material contains a vast amount of personal information that should receive the full protection of the Constitution against unreasonable searches and seizures.
"As human beings, we shed hundreds of thousands of skin and hair cells daily, with each cell containing information about who we are, where we come from, and who we will be," EFF Senior Staff Attorney Jennifer Lynch said. "The court must recognize that allowing police the limitless ability to collect and search genetic material will usher in a future where DNA may be collected from any person at any time, entered into and checked against DNA databases, and used to conduct pervasive surveillance."
Glenn Raynor's genetic material was collected and tested without his knowledge or consent after he agreed to an interview at a police station as part of a criminal investigation. The police didn't have probable cause to arrest Raynor, and he refused to provide a DNA sample. After he left the station, police swabbed the armrest of the chair where he had been sitting to collect his skin cells without his knowledge. The police then extracted a DNA profile from the cells and used it to connect him to the crime. The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that this collection was lawful, and Raynor petitioned the Supreme Court for review. EFF's brief supports Raynor's petition.
The sophistication and speed of DNA analysis technology is advancing exponentially as the costs of the technology drop. These advances, EFF argues, raise significant questions for privacy and civil liberties. DNA can reveal sensitive personal health information and can allow police to identify a person's relatives, turning family members into inadvertent "genetic informants" on each other. Some researchers have also postulated that DNA can determine race, sexual orientation, intelligence, and even political predispositions.
"Law enforcement should not be able to amass giant databases of genetic material they find lying around," EFF Senior Staff Attorney Hanni Fakhoury said. "The Supreme Court should review this case and consider it within the context of emerging technologies that could significantly affect the privacy rights of every American."
For EFF's amicus brief:
Senior Staff Attorney
Electronic Frontier Foundation