DNA fingerprinting is a process that makes it possible to identify an individual from a sample of their DNA. By looking at the unique patterns that are in the biological identification option, it becomes possible to see if someone was at the scene of a crime because a hair, skin flakes, or blood were left behind.
DNA fingerprinting technology is so powerful today that law enforcement can use familial matching to identify suspects as well. With the increasing use of DNA kits to track ancestry, family tree forensics is helping to solve cold cases. Barbara Rae-Venter used a genealogy website called GEDMatch to help investigators find the Golden State Killer. More than 20 other cases were solved in 2018 using this option as well.
About 99.9% of the DNA that is comparable between two humans is exactly the same. Almost every cell in your body contains DNA because it is the “programming code” of how everything functions correctly. The last 0.1% is unique, which is what makes you the individual you are today – unless you have an identical twin, anyway. That means the three million base pairs that are different can be useful when comparing or distinguishing you from others.
There are several advantages and disadvantages of DNA fingerprinting worth considering as this option becomes more available to criminal justice systems around the world.
List of the Advantages of DNA Fingerprinting
1. DNA fingerprinting reduces the uncertainty of an identification.
No two people are believed to have the exact same fingerprints, just like no two people are believed to have the exact same DNA. To compare fingerprints for matching, specific points of comparison are logged, either by a visual examination or analytic software, to determine its accuracy.
Although this process is fairly accurate, it is not as accurate as DNA fingerprinting. According to the National Institutes of Standards and Technology, fingerprint comparisons are accurate 98.6% of the time on a single finger. DNA fingerprinting is accurate 99.9% of the time.
2. This technology gives investigators another option to consider for evidence.
A pair of gloves might be able to stop fingerprints from being left behind at a crime scene. You could wear a full-body suit to prevent other materials from being discarded by your body. These options prove that DNA evidence is much more challenging to avoid leaving behind during the commission of illicit activity.
People shed skin flakes and hair follicles all the time. Even a sneeze releases bodily fluids that contain DNA traces which law enforcement can use for identification purposes. A simple cough can be enough to secure a conviction.
3. DNA fingerprinting has an indefinite storage period.
DNA fingerprinting produces a distinct genetic profile that identifies an individual. These portraits are storable in databases for an unlimited time. Because this data is transformed into information points, it can be moved through email, instant messaging, and other forms of communication almost immediately.
Private information can be communicated quickly over an ethernet connection for law enforcement purposes as well. That means it becomes more straightforward to recognize and find potential suspects who have their DNA fingerprints already stored. This advantage offers a higher potential for protection in our culture.
4. It is not an obtrusive process for the individual.
Traditional fingerprinting needs dark ink to be on each fingertip to highlight the skin’s distinguishing marks there. That finger gets rolled onto a card to leave an identification mark. Some fingerprinting may need palm prints as well.
DNA fingerprinting only needs a single cheek swab to gather the necessary information. You don’t need to have a blood test to highlight this personal info. This process is just as easy as conventional fingerprinting when obtaining data about a suspect in a potential case.
5. You don’t need a specific sample size to get the needed information.
The genetic materials gathered from a DNA sample receive amplification with contemporary technologies, creating identity markers from tiny sample sizes. This advantage means a small specimen provides the same identification data as a large sample offers.
The size of the gathered sample does not alter the storage potential for DNA fingerprinting either. Simple swabs are storable almost indefinitely, making the data available for analysis when needed for family research, criminal justice purposes, or other societal needs.
6. Genetic treatments are possible because of DNA fingerprinting.
Hereditary conditions usually have a genetic element to them. DNA fingerprinting is already useful when identifying individuals with specific illnesses. All 50 states require infant screenings that can catch PKU, for example, before it becomes a life-threatening problem.
Infants with Phenylketonuria can get the restrictive diet their condition requires to ensure they receive a chance to live a fulfilling life. We can also develop new genetic treatments with this information to possibly restore DNA. This identification process may allow us to alter the info it contains, helping more people recover from what may be a terminal diagnosis right now.
7. It is useful in other lifestyle needs.
There are several ways that we can apply DNA fingerprinting to serve our lives in a variety of approaches. Individuals use their profiles to discover their ancestry and cultural heritage with at-home services. We can then use this information to determine biological parentage or find lost family members. We can also use it to recognize people who could be at risk of experiencing specific or genetically-related cancers or related diseases.
We often see DNA fingerprinting as a way to recognize suspects in criminal matters, but this advantage proves there are a variety of uses that we can continue to advance.
List of the Disadvantages of DNA Fingerprinting
1. The technologies of DNA fingerprinting rely on human accuracy.
DNA fingerprinting might help the criminal justice system identify suspects or provide assistance with finding lost family, but it also relies on imperfect humans to process and relate that information. There are times when this work is not done with the accuracy that is necessary for an accurate result.
Many of the kits and processes that are used in this field today don’t sequence your entire genome. They instead look at the positions of interest in your DNA which are relevant to your current interests. As Adam Rutherford reported for Scientific American in 2018, one test said he had a gene for red hair prevalence, and another did not.
2. Ethnic targeting becomes a possibility with this technology.
One of the worst traits of humanity is the tendency to try purging people who are different from the majority in their culture. Nazi Germany is the most famous example of this issue, but numerous ethnic cleansing campaigns happened in the 20th century. Even as late as 2017, government-sanctioned ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims killed thousands, with children allegedly burned alive by Buddhist vigilantes and the Myanmar military.
This technology makes it easier to discriminate against people, just as it can help us to identify who we are. It is a disadvantage that could eventually lead to high levels of classism in society.
3. People often sign their rights away when submitting DNA.
The at-home DNA kits that are sold on Amazon and numerous other retail locations can give people access to personal information immediately. The terms and conditions of the test can include the right to access your genetic profile at any time, storing it in a database that anyone could access. Some of the largest collections of DNA profiles have nearly 15 million records in them already.
The NDIS (National DNA Index System) contains almost 3,000,000 profiles of individuals who had their DNA obtained through court orders because of an arrest that never resulted in charges. There are about 1 million forensic files stored in there as well from people who may have never spent time in prison. This database has sent over 285,000 records since its creation in 1994, potentially sharing the info about innocent people with those who don’t have a need to know.
4. Agencies can store DNA fingerprints indefinitely.
Even though screening infants for PKU is a life-changing DNA test, their profiles are stored indefinitely in some states. It is possible for someone to be identified with this product if they were to have their genetic information found at the scene of a crime – whether they were involved in it or not. Some states require the destruction of the blood sample cards within a few weeks to ensure your privacy, but there are others who keep them for an extended period to provide ongoing health supports to infants.
According to CBS News, there are 12 states that store PKU cards for at least 21 years. Some use them for indefinite research in state-run biobanks. Although the parent pays for this test, the information becomes the property of the state. It can even be sold to outside researchers without consent or knowledge.
5. DNA fingerprinting could be used by other industries.
Imagine a world where a health insurance company could deny coverage because of what your DNA says. Consider a community where religious groups could be allowed to not serve certain classes of people because of the likelihood that they might come from an ethnicity, gender identity, or sexual preference that differs from their own. This place would become a global society where children would have little say in who they could become.
The data we can gather from the DNA fingerprinting process can be used for a lot of good. It could also create the potential for a lot of terrible divisions in our society that would be challenging to overcome if they were to happen.
6. Some people feel that DNA evidence is a perfect, unfillable approach.
Even when you have 3 million different base pairs when your DNA receives a comparison to another person’s information, there are several false matches that occur with our current technology. It is not a reliable test when the 13 common markers are used for testing and nothing else. The average set of strangers can match on nine of these identification points very frequently. Some can even match 10 out of the 13, which is the level used as a confirmation in some justice systems.
Most crime scenes product partial or incomplete DNA profiles. Degradation of the sample, contaminants, and the limited quantity of material can make it impossible to determine genotypes at every locus. That’s why the theory of this approach is useful, but its practical application can be lacking at times.
7. There must be a correct interpretation of the data for it to be useful.
The presence of DNA does not influence the guilt or innocence of the individual who left it somewhere. A crime that happens at a bank where you regularly visit because that’s where you hold an account doesn’t mean that you are a robber if someone steals money. There must be an accurate interpretation of the age, quality, and other factors of each sample to determine the viability of liability.
The Atlantic reports that DNA testing offers a false promise. It is becoming more common, but less reliable, at the same time. In November 2002, acting on the tip of a whistleblower, dozens of DNA profiles processed by the Houston Police Department Crime Lab were processed independently. The results showed that local technicians were routinely misinterpreting even basic samples.
8. There are data protection issues to consider with DNA fingerprinting.
We’ve already seen how effective data hacking can be under precise circumstances. Millions of individuals have had their data profiles compromised over the past ten years, including an estimated 150 million credit profiles through Equifax. Imagine how much damage is possible if a person’s data profile contained DNA attributes instead of personal data or payment histories?
The capacity to store DNA fingerprinting information must include an aptitude to protect it adequately. Without this level of security, our society could experience new forms of identity theft that could be very challenging to oppose.
9. We have privacy questions that still need to be asked.
Josiah Sutton was convicted of a rape in Houston that allegedly occurred at the age of 16. DNA fingerprinting helped to convict him, even though the processing work was inadequate. After a complete review of his case that included independent testing and outside council, Sutton was eventually freed from jail four years after being sent there. What should happen to the DNA that he voluntarily gave to the police department?
Since the data from DNA fingerprinting offers indefinite storage, we have privacy issues that must be addressed. Most people lose personal control over this biological information once they give it to someone, either voluntarily or through a court order. Alex Wubbels earned a $500,000 payment to settle a dispute over her arrest in Salt Lake City for refusing to allow a police officer to take blood from an unconscious patient. Do we need to treat DNA in this way as well?
10. Even if all things are perfect, the results are still imperfect.
Even when everything works as it should and there are zero human errors during DNA testing, there is still the possibility that something could go wrong. An accuracy rate of 99.99% still means that there is an error in every 10,000 cases analyzed. Some services only offer 99.9% accuracy. If we take the latter option and apply it to DNA fingerprinting, then it creates the possibility that there could be up to 2,000 people in the U.S. who may be innocent of their charges despite the presence of DNA information.
We must all continue to encourage this industry and technology to push forward with its evolutionary tract to ensure that it can become more accurate over time.
Verdict of the Advantages and Disadvantages of DNA Fingerprinting
DNA fingerprinting provides us with an opportunity to create safer communities because we can identify those who attempt to make it unsafe. The information these databases contain can help people to find lost family members, discover their heritage, and embrace their culture in ways that were not really possible in the past.
This technology could also create new ways for one group of people to target others for selfish, or even violent purposes.
The advantages and disadvantages of DNA fingerprinting show us that it is possible to learn more about who we are. This process can lead to necessary medical interventions. It might also become the foundation of genetic exclusions in the future where we create new societal classes based on a person’s genetic information. It is a useful technology, but it is also one that we must approach with great caution.
Natalie Regoli is a seasoned writer, who is also our editor-in-chief. If you have any questions about the content of this blog post, then please send our editor-in-chief a message here.