What would happen if everyone could do DNA analysis within minutes using a simple computerized box that accepted a person's cell samples on a swab and spit out the answer about a person's genetic identity automatically?
Though it sounds like the stuff of science fiction, that possibility is now within reach. And as the new capability of what's being called 'Rapid DNA' analysis takes off, law enforcement in police stations and the FBI could be using it to catch criminals without having to send DNA off to official DNA-testing labs as is done now. But it doesn't stop there. U.S. agencies could not only use this instant "DNA analysis in a box" to check the identity of someone wanting to come into the country, but easily check to see if two people who say they're related really are since DNA genetic information can provide that. And that's just what governments might do with it -- there's no reason that businesses and individuals couldn't easily be doing DNA analysis, too, in the years to come.
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"What science has given us is some very miraculous work in the DNA world," said Peter Verga, chief of staff for the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy at the U.S. Department of Defense, during his keynote at the Biometric Consortium Conference in Tampa recently.
After years of research encouraged by the FBI and DoD, 'Rapid DNA' analysis-in-a-box is here, proving a DNA profile can be produced automatically, with no need for professional lab training, in 90 minutes or less. Two companies, integenX and NetBio, are the manufacturers whose 'Rapid DNA' equipment is now under government evaluation at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the U.S. Army Criminal Investigative Laboratory. More companies, including Lockheed Martin, are expected to soon follow.
Verga noted it would theoretically be possible in the future to do a DNA profile on travelers coming into Dulles Airport, for example, for security purposes. But whatever ends up happening with the new power for instant DNA analysis, it must "adhere to the rule of law" and conform to the idea that one must "do good with biometrics and avoid evil," he added.
The 'Rapid DNA' analysis is only going to get more powerful in what it can do.
Richard Selden, CEO of NetBio, describes its ANDE System as a 'Rapid DNA' box that measures 26.6''-inches by 16.5-inches' x 23.1-inches' and can take an inserted cotton swab with cell samples from someone's cheek and produces a DNA profile in 83 minutes. Ruggedized for air, truck and hand-carry, it's "stable for at least six months without refrigeration," said Selden, speaking about it at the conference. It works in "an uncontrolled environment" with "no manual processing."
To match DNA, it can connect to a remote database or do the DNA matching in a local database onboard. The technology developed by NetBio is already being expanded into next-generation device that will accept very minute samples of DNA collected from cups or virtually anywhere for a DNA profile of the individual. The box is also being expanded to do "kinship analysis," Selden pointed out.
"Maybe a brother or sister will be in a terrorist database," said Selden during his presentation, noting there might be a "family of terrorists, siblings."
Identifying relatives is something the Department of Homeland Security would like to be able to quickly and easily do out in remote areas, said Christopher Miles, biometrics program manager in the DHS division for U.S. citizenship and immigration services.
The goal is to help legitimate refugees, for instance, gain legal entry to the U.S. but there's often a lack of authentic documentation, such as birth certificates, to help in assessing identity. There's a lot of lying about who is actually who, including who someone's relatives are. And there's the danger of human trafficking, especially of children and young women. But Miles, who spoke at the biometrics conference on the topic, said DHS will be doing field testing of the integenX and NetBios 'Rapid DNA' boxes to collect DNA information on candidates for U.S. entry.
Background: FBI eager to embrace mobile 'Rapid DNA' testing
And the FBI is planning on expanding DNA analysis to do more genetic analysis. There's the potential to not only explore family relationships through genes, but to find out about genetic disease in a much easier way than was once thought.
Legal issues are likely to slow down the ability of the police and FBI to take 'Rapid DNA' analysis of suspects and merge it into the FBI's database of 10 million records to do comparisons to find matches. That's because current law calls for a system of accredited DNA labs, not do-it-yourself DNA analysis boxes. But secretive U.S. intelligence agencies are known to already being putting the 'Rapid DNA' boxes to use, according to sources. The U.S. military for a long time has been known to be accumulating an extensive collection of DNA samples in Afghanistan, for example, to stop terrorism.
The rise of 'Rapid DNA' makes some working in the official DNA labs uneasy. The new DNA-in-a-box could find a role in a lab environment, said Cecelia Crouse, crime lab director for the Palm Beach Sheriff's Office. But she's skeptical it's appropriate for use by those without the kind of training that professionals have in DNA report analysis.
"We still feel a qualified DNA analyst needs to interpret samples," said Crouse during a panel discussion at the conference. "We feel it still takes a qualified DNA analyst to interpret this and write a report."
But the whole point of the 'Rapid DNA' gear is that anyone, with five minutes of training on how to put in a cotton swab with cell samples into a box, can get the same outcome as a DNA professional in a lab.
And if the government can do this, so can the private sector, where paternity tests are in demand, and new businesses for instant analysis about that could spring up. The integenX RapidHIT box is selling now for a few hundred thousand dollars, so in theory there's no reason that someone couldn't buy one to do near-instant analysis of DNA samples. In high-security operations, a DNA sample of an individual's cells might become a typical request instead of fingerprints in the future.
And while a privacy debate is certain to erupt as the world learns more about how real 'Rapid DNA' is, there could also be whole new authentication mechanisms evolve based on a person's genetic identity.
Ellen Messmer is senior editor at Network World, an IDG publication and website, where she covers news and technology trends related to information security. Twitter: MessmerE. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.