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FBI eager to embrace mobile 'Rapid DNA' testing

It's been the FBI's dream for years -- to do near-instant DNA analysis using mobile equipment in the field -- and now "Rapid DNA" gear is finally here.

The idea is that you simply drop into the system a cotton swab with a person's saliva, for example, and the "Rapid DNA" machine spits out the type of DNA data that's needed to pin down identity. Now that such equipment exists, the FBI is pushing to get it into the hands of law enforcement agencies as soon as possible. [Also see: "FBI building system that blows away fingerprinting"]

"DNA has emerged as the gold standard in forensics analysis," Steven Martinez, executive assistant director of the science and technology branch at the FBI, said in his keynote address to attendees of the Biometric Consortium Conference in Tampa on Tuesday.

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Though the genetic information contained in an individual's DNA, which is in all human cells, has been used since the late 1980s to solve crime cases, analysis of DNA has remained frustratingly slow because DNA had to be sent to special labs to be analyzed. New "Rapid DNA" devices are now ready to be evaluated and the FBI has received two basic types.

One is called the RapidHIT, which is made by IntegenX, a Pleasanton, Calif.-based company whose CEO Stevan Jovanovich was in the exhibit hall to explain how the Rapid DNA device can spit out an individual's DNA data within 90 minutes.

Another company, NetBio, is also believed to have delivered its Rapid DNA-type equipment to the FBI, Jovanovich says, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is expected to play an important role in helping certify systems and processes for how these boxes will be used by the FBI and local police stations to collect DNA data on suspects.

Jovanovich notes that the networked IntegenX RapidHIT box, which is based on a hardened version of Windows and measures about 27-by-24-by-16 inches, costs about $245,000. RapidHIT boxes are already in use with intelligence agencies, says Jovanovich, who adds he's not at liberty to say which ones or what they're doing with them.

The FBI, which is believed to have upwards of 10 million DNA records on individuals already stored in databases, anticipates a significant expansion of DNA collection by means of Rapid DNA equipment.

The FBI has been known for pioneering a massive collection of fingerprint images and an online matching system that can be accessed remotely to help local law enforcement, as well as the Department of Defense and other law-enforcement agencies, nail down the identities of criminals and terrorists. Today, Dr. Alice Isenberg, chief of the biometrics analysis section at the FBI laboratory, explained in her presentation how the FBI hopes to expand the national DNA database used to investigate crime for DNA matches online as well.

At some point in the future, the Rapid DNA devices will be "in booking stations at police stations all over the country," she says. By using a cotton swab to get a DNA sample from suspects and process it through Rapid DNA machines, that DNA information will be transmitted to the FBI database. At least that's the vision, she says. There is already a "DNA offender database" that holds about 800,000 DNA sample records, with the 1 millionth sample expected this year.

The FBI's senior scientist, Dr. Thomas Callahan, will be discussing on Wednesday how the FBI plans to integrate Rapid DNA devices into its forensics investigations process. But Isenberg also says the FBI wants to expand how it uses DNA information (it collects two basic types today, nuclear and mitochrondrial, needed to identity the identity of an individual) in order to provide greater help to the intelligence community.

For instance, the FBI could provide information about genetic traits and ancestry if that were needed, but Isenberg acknowledges that privacy issues still have to be addressed. The FBI also plans to widen some of the technical analysis it does of DNA samples to identify slightly more detail related to DNA loci to eliminate any remote possibility of two individuals showing a match when a comparison is made.

The arrival of Rapid DNA devices raises lots of questions. For instance, will these devices be sold to anyone who wants one? "We're not selling them to terrorist states," says Jovanovich. But the company does intend to sell them to friendly nations and police stations, and possibly private sector companies. It's not inconceivable that a revolutionary technology like the Rapid DNA machines could lead to an individual's DNA data being used as a basis for biometric authentication in some way. Jovanovich recalls that Microsoft once filed a patent a few years ago to do something like that. And in the future, the speed of Rapid DNA is going to get down to under the 90 minutes where it's at today, he adds. The U.S. appears to be leading in developing Rapid DNA, with no other countries known at this time to be doing it.

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. Email: [email protected]

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