Privacy Experts: Supreme Court Ruling on DNA Swabs Could Lead to Big Brother Scenario

Experts worry the ruling encourages more arrests, and could lead to the use of DNA for identification.

Ronald Ford Jr. places a cotton swab that was used for DNA testing in an envelope to be sent to a lab Feb. 8, 2006, in Camden, N.J.. (William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that law enforcement can use a buccal swab as part of their standard booking procedures.

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The case before the Supreme Court Monday centered on Alonzo King, a Maryland man who was arrested six years after the rape and robbery of a 53-year-old woman for another crime, a felony second-degree assault. His DNA swab matched a sample from the rape. The police were able to make the match because Maryland's law already allows for warrantless DNA tests.

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At oral arguments in February, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor sarcastically noted that if DNA swabs work so well, "why don't we do this for anybody who comes in for a driver's license?"

That sort of big brother scenario is what privacy advocates most fear: that the government would turn to DNA profiles as a tool to track citizens.

"The same way that the social security number has become a ubiquitous identifier, you could imagine using DNA. It's a lot harder to fabricate. Instead of having someone fill out forms at the doctor's office, why not swab someone's cheek," says Murphy, the NYU law professor. "I think those are real concerns."

In court, Baltimore deputy attorney general Katherine Winfree argued that the benefits of DNA swabs outweighed the risks, noting that since 2009, the year Maryland starting collecting DNA samples from people arrested for serious crimes, police had made 225 matches, 75 prosecutions and 42 convictions.

Sepich agrees with the sentiment, but her reasons are a lot less numbers-based and a lot more personal.

"Probably thousands of families in the U.S. will not go through what our family went through, now, because DNA will be used to not only solve crimes but prevent crimes," she says.

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