I-20 truck stop in Abilene, Texas. Photo by ap0013.
I-20 truck stop in Abilene, Texas. Photo by ap0013.
ScienceOnly Human

Could DNA Databases Curb Human Trafficking?

Interstate 20 starts on the west side of Texas and runs east to the Atlantic ocean, passing through Dallas along the way. The highway has lots of truck stops, some of which are known sites of prostitution, serial murders, or both. About once a month, always on a Wednesday, Dallas police show up at one of these spots for an unusual sting operation.

The cops round up the prostitutes, usually about a dozen of them, and bring them to an area set up with food, clothes, STD testing, and legal counsel. “They walk them over and say, ‘You would be going to jail if it was Tuesday. But it’s your lucky Wednesday’,” says Sara Katsanis, an associate in research at Duke University’s Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy. The police give them two options: either go to jail, or start a 14-day rehabilitation program known as the Prostitute Diversion Initiative, or PDI. So far hundreds of prostitutes have chosen the latter.

Since PDI launched in April of 2007, it has helped many prostitutes (almost all women) find addiction counseling, housing, and lawful employment. But many girls stay in the sex industry. It’s a dangerous profession, with a death rate six times higher than average (and a homicide death rate 18 times higher).

PDI participants may voluntarily submit a saliva sample for future DNA testing. The police will test the sample only if it’s relevant to some future crime — most likely, for a post-mortem identification. In other words, the only way the prostitute’s DNA donation can help her is if she turns up dead.

“Prostitutes are quite often, in Texas, victims of homicide, and quite often they don’t carry ID. So the police end up with a crime scene, a victim, and the inability to connect the dots,” Katsanis says. But there may be other beneficial uses for those saliva samples, she says.

Some of the Texas prostitutes, for example, may have been sold into the sex trade as children. Imagine a world in which secure, international databases could match genetic profiles of missing children or human trafficking victims — prostitutes, illegally adopted children, even child soldiers — with profiles submitted by their family members. As Katsanis writes in a commentary published today in Trends in Genetics, this kind of thing is already happening, but on a very small scale. In order for it to be really useful, she says, researchers, policy makers, law enforcement, and non-profits from many different countries will have to work out a whole lot of ethical, legal and logistical issues.

You’ve probably heard of the police using DNA databases to identify criminals — the Supreme Court is now deciding a case about this very thing, and Justice Samuel Alito said it might be “the most important criminal procedure case that this court has heard in decades.” But you might be surprised (I was) to learn that U.S. federal authorities also routinely use DNA information for immigration cases. When people want to enter the U.S. as refugees, they may submit DNA samples to prove they’re related to American citizens (a requirement for many refugees). Unlike the criminal DNA databases that are controlled by the government, for immigration cases the feds hire commercial laboratories to perform the tests and store the samples.

Indefinite storage of DNA, especially by the government, naturally raises concerns about privacy and trust. That’s doubly true for vulnerable populations, like children, immigrants and trafficking victims, who may not understand the language of consent forms or the purpose of the tests, or may feel coerced to consent. That makes the situation extremely challenging, but not impossible.

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Boys rescued in Mexico after being trafficked as prostitutes. Photo by Jodi Cobb.

In 2004, José Lorente, a geneticist at the University of Grenada, started a foundation called DNA-Prokids with the mission of building DNA databases that would help find missing children. The organization has since sent thousands of free DNA testing kits to authorities in 16 countries, preventing (according to the New York Times) 200 illegal adoptions and reuniting 550 children with their families. For example, Brenda Corado, a Guatemalan, found her daughter Angela thanks to DNA testing. As the Times reported:

Ms. Corado had been walking on the street with Angela, then 21 days old, when two men got out of a car, snatched the baby from her arms and beat her until she passed out. What the men intended to do with the child is unclear. But Dr. Lorente believes that they probably intended to make money putting the child up for adoption.

Two months later, however, an infant girl was abandoned at a Christian television station in Guatemala and, using DNA analysis, the police were able to identify that baby as Angela.

Some of the samples collected by DNA-Prokids are analyzed at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth — the same group that’s collaborating with the Dallas police on the Prostitute Diversion Initiative. Katsanis focused her commentary on these two programs, she says, because they’re examples of partnerships between government and academia. The academic scientists “are holding the information, and handling it, and then returning it back to the law enforcement community,” she says.

But what Katsanis would really like to understand, she says, “is how this could be done outside of government, especially when we’re collecting from innocent people.”

Take those Texas prostitutes, who will never personally benefit from their DNA testing. The police have good reasons for this. “They have to keep a chain of custody. They have to protect those samples because those samples might become evidence,” Katsanis explains. And that’s obviously important. But if non-government parties — human rights organizations, for example — knew more about the possible uses of DNA testing, perhaps they could also get involved at the time of collection, and perhaps set up a system of analysis and storage that’s separate from law enforcement.

That’s probably a fanciful scenario, at least for now, Katsanis says. “The most challenging aspect is trying to figure out a way to infiltrate the community that is working directly with trafficked victims, for them to even be aware that this is an option.”

This comment really surprised me. Why not just reach out to the big NGOs and foundations and tell them all about DNA? “I think there’s a distrust among the care providers that DNA is a law enforcement tool and not a victim advocacy tool,” she says.

A lot of issues swirling around DNA boil down to trust, don’t they? You might trust a consumer genetics company to keep your DNA information secure, for example, or you might trust a medical center to store your baby’s umbilical cord blood. But do you trust the government with your DNA?

I asked Katsanis whether she would ever contribute a DNA sample to a U.S. government database. She replied with a swift and certain, “No,” and then told me a story about the day she gave a lecture on DNA to some police officers in Greensboro, North Carolina.

“After I lectured to them, I said, ‘What do you guys think of a universal database? Should we just put everybody in it?’,” she recalls. “They said, ‘You mean me, too?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, you too.’ And they said, ‘Oh no, not at all, not ever. I don’t trust the police. I don’t trust us to not misuse that DNA’.”


Find out more about human protections and DNA (and download full case studies of the Prostitute Diversion Initiative and DNA-Prokids) at Katsanis’s group’s website.