If you were born in the United States within the last 50 or so years, chances are good that one of the first things you did as a baby was give a DNA sample to the government. By the 1970s, states had established newborn screening programs, in which a nurse takes a few drops of blood from a pinprick on a baby’s heel, then sends the sample to a lab to test for certain diseases.
Over the years, the list has grown from just a few conditions to dozens. The blood is supposed to be used for medical purposes — these screenings identify babies with serious health issues, and they have been highly successful at reducing death and disability among children. But a public records lawsuit filed last month in New Jersey suggests these samples are also being used by police in criminal investigations.
The lawsuit, filed by the state’s Office of the Public Defender and the New Jersey Monitor, a nonprofit news outlet, alleges that state police sought a newborn’s blood sample from the New Jersey Department of Health to investigate the child’s father in connection with a sexual assault from the 1990s.
Crystal Grant, a technology fellow at the American Civil Liberties Union, says the case represents a “whole new leap forward” in the misuse of DNA by law enforcement. “It means that essentially every baby born in the US could be included in police surveillance,” she says.
It’s not known how many agencies around the country have sought to use newborn screening samples to investigate crimes, or how often those attempts were successful. But there is at least one other instance of it happening.
Because there are no federal laws governing newborn screening programs, states set their own policies on which diseases they test for, how long samples are stored, and how they can be used,” notes Wired. “Some states hold on to blood samples for months, others for years or decades. Virginia only keeps samples from infants with normal results for six months, while Michigan retains them for up to 100 years.
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