Everywhere people go, they leave bits of DNA behind. The saliva on a coffee cup or a stray hair can tell investigators a lot about a person, says National Public Radio in the first of a three-part series. Courts have said little about how much of a right people have to keep that DNA private. “Traditionally, the law has been that if you abandon your DNA, you lose it,” says Barry Scheck of The Innocence Project. The group works to exonerate criminals it thinks were wrongly convicted. Scheck thinks there should be a limit to what investigators can do with abandoned DNA. Comparing it to samples in a DNA database seems acceptable to Scheck, because it’s “like comparing a fingerprint.” But “it would be quite another thing to start searching that DNA for more private information,” such as familial connections or susceptibility to diseases.
Courts have put few limits on how police can acquire your DNA. “Somebody can’t just come up to me and demand a DNA sample,” says Doug Klunder, a Washington state ACLU attorney. “At a practical level, there is no protection. If law enforcement wants to get your DNA, they can.” The Washington Supreme Court upheld, 6-3, a police ruse in which officers matched a suspect to a crime via DNA it obtained when he licked an envelope responding to a phony request to join a class-action lawsuit.