Robert Schueren shook my hand firmly, handed me his business card, and flipped it over, revealing a short list of letters and numbers. “Here is my DNA profile.” He smiled. “I have nothing to hide.” I had come to meet Schueren, the CEO of IntegenX, at his company’s headquarters in Pleasanton, California, to see its signature product: a machine the size of a large desktop printer that can unravel your genetic code in the time it takes to watch a movie.
Schueren grabbed a cotton swab and dropped it into a plastic cartridge. That’s what, say, a police officer would use to wipe the inside of your cheek to collect a DNA sample after an arrest, he explained. Other bits of material with traces of DNA on them, like cigarette butts or fabric, could work too. He inserted the cartridge into the machine and pressed a green button on its touch screen: “It’s that simple.” Ninety minutes later, the RapidHIT 200 would generate a DNA profile, check it against a database, and report on whether it found a match.
The RapidHIT represents a major technological leap—testing a DNA sample in a forensics lab normally takes at least two days. This has government agencies very excited. The Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, and the Justice Department funded the initial research for “rapid DNA” technology, and after just a year on the market, the $250,000 RapidHIT is already being used in a few states, as well as China, Russia, Australia, and countries in Africa and Europe.
“We’re not always aware of how it’s being used,” Schueren said. “All we can say is that it’s used to give an accurate identification of an individual.” Civil liberties advocates worry that rapid DNA will spur new efforts by the FBI and police to collect ordinary citizens’ genetic code.
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