Exclusive: After CODIS Glitch, State DNA Committee Chides FBI For Secrecy

By Kevin Deutsch

The FBI has refused a request from the state’s DNA subcommittee to provide detailed information about a software glitch in the bureau’s CODIS system, state officials said, spurring criticism from the body charged with overseeing genetic testing in New York.

The glitch, exclusively reported by Bronx Justice News in February, impacts the way DNA results are displayed on local crime lab computers, potentially effecting agencies that test and process DNA across the country.

“I was firmly rejected,” Dr. Dwight Adams, chairman of the state’s DNA Subcommittee and a former director of the FBI laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, said of the committee’s request for a recent FBI bulletin about the glitch. “Not only were we not entitled to it, but that no laboratory could divulge the information from that [bulletin].”

Yale university geneticist Dr. Kenneth Kidd, a member of the subcommittee, told his colleagues at Friday’s subcommittee meeting that the FBI’s rejection is “an unacceptable response.”

“It’s impeding our work,” Kidd said.

The DNA subcommittee is part of New York’s Office of Forensic Services, which administers the state’s DNA Databank  and sets state policy and rules for the gathering and testing of DNA at crime labs city and statewide.

New York State DNA scientists were among the first to discover the glitch in CODIS, the FBI’s national DNA database. Officials said the error led to the display of incorrect information for at least two genetic profiles in state cases, and possibly more.

At Friday’s meeting, the subcommittee voted to “appeal” the FBI’s rejection by sending a letter to, and personally calling, FBI Director Christoper Wray.

State lab technicians said they initially noticed that results being displayed for a CODIS offender “hit” were inaccurate. Later, a second instance of incorrect information being displayed was discovered.

Three crime labs in the United States told the FBI they were impacted by the CODIS software glitch, a bureau spokesperson said in February.

The errors were the result of a “data synchronization issue,” according to the FBI. It is not clear whether other labs have since received incorrect information due to the glitch.

The FBI declined on Friday to say how many labs nationwide have been impacted by the software issue.

Once labs were notified of the glitch, “there was technically no need for any lab to report this occurrence to the CODIS Unit,” the FBI said in a statement.

In response to an inquiry about why the state’s request was rejected, the FBI said the DNA Subcommittee asked for the CODIS bulletin on Feb. 7.

The FBI response dated March 4, 2019, “clearly indicated that ‘CODIS Bulletins, and the information contained therein, are Law Enforcement Sensitive (LES) documents which are the property of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI),’” the Bureau said. “It goes on to state that ‘Distribution and/or disclosure outside of the law enforcement laboratories that participate in the National DNA Index System (NDIS) is not authorized.”

The FBI said the subcommittee had “only requested the CODIS Bulletin itself, it did not request any other details regarding this display issue.”

Federal authorities “would be allowed to discuss with the subcommittee how a particular issue affects their laboratory functions,” according to the Bureau.

The CODIS database contains the DNA profiles of more than 13.6 million Americans

In response to the glitch, the FBI in February said it was providing local crime labs across the country with “guidance to assist in locating incorrectly displayed data as well as steps labs could take to correct the issue in advance of the software update.”

At a previous subcommittee meeting, Adams said the FBI was working on a patch to repair the glitch and identify any other instances in which incorrect offender profile information was displayed.

On Friday, the subcommittee said the FBI software patch—known as the Match Rank Restore Utility—was being sent to labs nationwide. Distribution began April 29 and will continue through late summer, officials said. The New York State Police crime lab is already using the patch, authorities said. 

“This software utility has now been provided to the community and the laboratories are now executing this utility at their laboratories to correct any occurrence of this display issue,” the FBI said.

There are eight CODIS-approved labs in New York, including the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner’s lab as well as labs in Westchester and Nassau Counties. 

About Kevin Deutsch 265 Articles
Kevin Deutsch is a Staff Writer for Bronx Justice News covering the criminal justice system, drugs, and DNA use by law enforcement. An award-winning journalist, Deutsch is the author of the true crime books "Pill City" and "The Triangle." He has worked on staff at the Daily News, Miami Herald, Newsday, The Palm Beach Post, and The Riverdale Press. His work has also appeared in Newsweek, Columbia Journalism Review, The New York Times, The Village Voice, The Forward, The Independent, Huffington Post, Orlando Sentinel, and the New York Post, among other publications. His numerous television appearances include spots on CNN, MSNBC, and C-SPAN's BookTV. He has also been featured in The New Yorker. A Bronx resident, Deutsch hosts the true crime podcast "A Dark Turn" on the Authors on the Air Global Radio Network.