I’m sure most of us have made a computer mistake similar to the one I made recently. You punch in a password to a secure site and the computer spits it back as invalid. You try again, thinking you’ve mistyped a letter, but the machine doesn’t budge an inch. “Have you forgotten your password?” it asks in red type as if the screen were sticking out its tongue. “Stupid machine,” you curse. Then you remember you’ve entered a password from another account. “Oh,” you sigh. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the thieves disappeared and we didn’t need all this security?”
Help may be on the way. Technology that makes identification foolproof and easy is off the drawing board. Some programs use an eyeball or a thumbprint to identify users, though the systems aren’t widely available yet. “When?” you ask, eager to burn all those pass words. Well, not so fast. A technology that purports to make our lives easier may bring a set of dangers all its own. In fact, one new advance is downright scary. IntegenX is marketing a device not much bigger than an electronic printer called Rapid HIT. It unravels a DNA sample in two hours instead of two days, and the machine can be scooped up for a mere $250,000. The Department of Homeland Security, The Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, the FBI and police departments in several states are lined up to buy this new technology. (“Don’t Swab Me, Bro,” by Shane Bauer, Mother Jones, Jan/Feb/ 2015, pg. 12.)
Of course, every state already has a forensic DNA data base on convicted violent offenders, but this new technology is so easy to use and so cheap, authorities may be tempted to collect everyone’s DNA, citing enhanced security as their argument. Already 28 states have a permanent DNA data base on anyone arrested for certain felonies, even if those persons were never convicted of a crime. Some agencies go so far as to collect the DNA of anyone convicted of misdemeanors. (Ibid, bog 12) Imagine getting a ticket for driving through a red light and having your cheek swabbed. The FBI admits it’s “eager to see rapid DNA in wide use,” and supports legislation already in the pipeline “to make that happen.” (Ibid pg. 15).
Good arguments exist to support easy access to DNA technology. Innocent people may be exonerated of crimes they didn’t commit. (Ibid, pg 12) Bad guys can be caught faster. People crossing our southern border with children can be identified as actual family members and not traffickers. And, the backlog for DNA reports could be reduced. But the potential for abuse is also real. Getting swabbed for a minor traffic violation and ending up in the criminal DNA data base isn’t cool. And it could happen.
Every upgrade in technology brings with it advantages and disadvantages. Easy identity recognition is a plus if it gets rid of all those passwords. But new technology that makes it convenient to invade a person’s privacy is a minus. Weighing the benefits of a technology against its threats requires constant evaluation. If Congress does anything, it should create a permanent commission to review the impact of new technology on our society. Citizens need a forum where they can be heard on just how safe they want to be.