Legal hurdles threaten to slow FBI's 'Rapid DNA' revolution

It's history being made -- the FBI just this month took acceptance of its first-ever "Rapid DNA" equipment for near-instant DNA analysis in the field. But use of this DNA analysis-in-a-box, which can be carried around and connected to the Internet, may be slowed because current law never envisioned such analysis being done for law-enforcement purposes outside an accredited lab.

RELATED: FBI eager to embrace 'Rapid DNA' testing

That realization, brought to light at the Biometric Consortium Conference on Wednesday, cast a shadow on what's a shining moment for the biometrics industry and its partnership with the FBI. The FBI has spent years working to build Rapid DNA equipment according to careful designs for ruggedness, security and usefulness in generating individual DNA profile data that police stations could use to share and match against the FBI's existing DNA Index System (NDIS) database. Such Rapid DNA gear can take in a cotton swab of an individual's saliva or blood in the field and within about 90 minutes, automatically spit out a human DNA profile.

Dr. Thomas Callaghan , senior biometric scientist in the biometric analysis section of the FBI Laboratory, just this month took delivery on the first two working models of Rapid DNA machines, the RapidHit 200 made by integenX, and the ANDE box made by NetBio. "It really is a remarkable achievement," says Callaghan. He and many others in the biometrics field this week at the conference recognized the historic significance of the technology breakthrough presented by the first commercially-viable equipment for Rapid DNA.

The U.S. Army has started evaluation of two ANDE System boxes it got from NetBio, says Jeff Salyards, chief scientist at the U.S. Army Criminal Investigative Laboratory. He reports that the Rapid DNA technology supplied by ANDE appears to work effectively.

Richard Selden, CEO of NetBio, assures that the ANDE System boxes for DNA analysis have undergone military-standard testing for ruggedness. However, Salyards says more testing is needed, and cautioned military buyers, eager to use Rapid DNA equipment in the field, to show patience as more testing is done.

It also could be a while until Rapid DNA can be used for U.S. law enforcement purposes. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which is teaming with the FBI to test the NetBio and IntegenX systems, as well as possibly others, for use with law enforcement, expects a full evaluation that includes new processes to be followed to connect to federal databases. Such an evaluation could take upwards of a year.

What's more, the DNA Identification Act of 1994 passed by Congress gave the FBI the authority to establish its DNA index system, but didn't envision that DNA information would be uploaded to the FBI database from a police station using Internet-connected Rapid DNA equipment. The law covers only accredited DNA labs in use today, not the mobile Rapid DNA equipment that can be operated by non-technical personnel anywhere, according to Clark Jaw, an auditor at the FBI Laboratory for the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). It appears there needs to be a change to the DNA Identification Act to accommodate use of the new technology, he says.

Other obstacles to achieve full-scale use in law enforcement include the need to build out CODIS software to accommodate Rapid DNA and create a quality-assurance process system. That all means Rapid DNA for law-enforcement purposes in the U.S. may take time. But the first Rapid DNA equipment is known to already be in use among secretive intelligence agencies.

"The ultimate goal is to have that technology available for law enforcement use at the police station," Jaw says, pointing out that one day law enforcement officials should be able to carry out real-time DNA-related searches using the Rapid DNA equipment to aid in fast investigation of crime suspects and crime scenes.

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: emessmer@nww.com.

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