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DNA Applications in Human Rights and Human Trafficking


At Duke, we are exploring the policy, science and ethics of DNA collection for protection of human rights, with a focus on identifying victims of human trafficking. Collection of DNA from migrants and refugees is routine practice in some countries and under consideration in the U.S., primarily to combat reported cases of fraud. Technological advances in DNA identification, combined with reports of child trafficking and adoption fraud, have led to proposals to initiate DNA collection to detect victims of human trafficking.

The collection of DNA by governments, law enforcement, and courts raises profound justice, civil, social, and ethical questions. Developing successful models to use DNA to protect human rights is complicated by concerns of privacy and abuse of power. Yet, the use of DNA to identify human trafficking victims is a powerful notion worthy of exploration.

In 2013-14, the Josiah Charles Trent Memorial Foundation funded a series of Duke-based workshops to exchange scientific, policy and human rights expertise, culminating with two pilot studies and launching a project centered on migration of Central American youth.

The Kenan Institute for EthicsFollowing this initiative, the Science, Ethics, Identity and Human Rights (SEIHR) Kenan Creative Collaboratory synergizes scholars, researchers and students in the sciences and humanities to examine a key challenge in the world: the ethical application of scientific technologies for human identification in human rights contexts. This Duke – NC State team examines ethically sound processes for human identification in high-risk populations that maximize the investigative utility and minimize risk of privacy violation.

Current projects:

  • Family Reference Sample Informed Consent for missing persons and disaster victim identification – We are evaluating existing consent forms from various organizations and developing model language. The resulting language will be useful to inform families on the risks and processes of providing DNA for identification of their missing loved ones.
  • Stakeholder analysis – We are conducting stakeholder analysis for the field of biometrics and DNA in human rights contexts. This project includes a framework research and site visits to organizations, law enforcement, academics, and other key stakeholders. In April 2016, we visited human rights advocates and forensic anthropologists in Texas working to identify migrants’ remains. Another trip is planned for Arizona in 2017.
  • Missing Migrants and Missing Persons Day – We are examining approaches to engaging families of the missing to collect genetic samples and provide information on processes of missing persons investigations.

Contact Sara Katsanis for more information.
Register for the SEIHR listserv

Relevant Team Publications

  • Felini L, Costa J, Felini M, Eisenberg A, Katsanis S. (Sep 2016) The Dallas High Risk Potential Victim’s DNA Database as a novel intelligence tool for investigations of transient populations. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, September 2016
  • Katsanis SH. (2015) DNA designed for human rights. Forensic Magazine, September 25, 2015
  • Katsanis SH, Kim J, M Minear, S Chandrasekharan, JK Wagner. (2015) Preliminary perspectives on DNA collection in anti-human trafficking efforts. Recent Advances in DNA and Gene Sequences, 8(2):78-90
  • Katsanis SH. “Humanitarian crisis at border calls for an unusual tool: DNA testing,” News and Observer, March 11, 2015; “DNA testing could help address humanitarian crisis at the border,”, March 13, 2015
  • Kim J and Katsanis SH. (2013) Brave new world of human rights DNA collection. Trends in Genetics, 29(6):329-332
  • Katsanis SH and Wagner JK. (2013) Characterization of the standard and recommended CODIS markers. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 58 Suppl 1:S169-72. [cited in U.S. Supreme Court Maryland v. King, 133 S. Ct. 158, (2013)]
  • Kim J, Mammo D, Siegel MB, Katsanis SH (2011) Policy implications for familial searching. Investigative Genetics, 2:22