U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Government Website

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Safely connect using HTTPS

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock () or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Archived Content

In an effort to keep DHS.gov current, the archive contains outdated information that may not reflect current policy or programs.

Bringing a New Biometric Capability to Verify Families Separated by Crisis

Release Date: October 20, 2015

Following a crisis, families can often find themselves separated. With the help of first responders and law enforcement, these families have a better chance of being reunited with their loved ones. However, in the process of doing this, there are many challenges of reliably verifying the relationships and kinship between family members.

Rapid DNA, a newly commercialized technology developed by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T), addresses these challenges by greatly expediting the testing of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) that is the only biometric that can accurately verify family relationships. This technology can be used on the scene of mass fatality events, in refugee camps around the world, or at immigration offices.

“Responders have often used DNA to make familial connections, but the process typically takes multiple days to process in a forensics laboratory and can take up to a few months to get the results,” explained S&T Capability Development Support Group (CDS) Office of Standards (STN) Standards Integration and Application Deputy Director, Chris Miles. “The Rapid DNA technology can be used in the field to confirm kinship between a parent and a child with 99.5 percent likelihood of relationship in 90 minutes.”

Because of the accuracy that DNA provides, many entities across the homeland security enterprise have expressed the need for this type of technology. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services first approached S&T about a solution more reliable than documentary evidence and interviews to help verify kinship in refugee camps and were joined by the Departments of Defense (pdf, 1.76mb,16 pages) and Justice  to develop and test the technology. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and U.S. Customs and Border Protection also expressed the need to identify family members in their respective disaster response and law enforcement missions.

Local medical examiners have also expressed an interest in Rapid DNA technology to support daily operations as well as prepare for disasters. Soon after S&T commercialized the technology, the Massachusetts Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (MA-OCME) purchased Rapid DNA as part of efforts to improve the resilience of their communities and disaster response.

“This is an extremely valuable tool that allows for officers and responders to inform families about the loss of a loved one or reunite parents and children in real time, while distinguishing from fraudulent claims,” said Miles. “The added benefit is that it is fast, requires minimal training, and it can be used in a variety of operational settings.”

Originating from the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, S&T identified two companies—NetBio from Massachusetts and IntegenX from California—who met the requirements for making an easy-to-use, compact and ruggedized version of what you can find in the lab—bringing the forensic capabilities to the front lines at a fraction of the cost. DNA testing by traditional forensic laboratories typically costs around $500 per sample; however, the goal is for Rapid DNA to cost less than $100 to process a sample. Today it is already down to $235 per sample and the costs will continue to fall as production increases.

In addition to its operational capabilities, S&T constructed Rapid DNA with a ‘privacy by design’ approach. It requires identity authentication for operators, all data is encrypted, and a log of all data actions is maintained. Furthermore, Rapid DNA only looks at DNA locations required to confirm a familial match and does not evaluate physical traits, race, ethnicity, or disease susceptibility.

The system is deliberately designed not to collect, store, or use the names of the persons providing DNA samples, or any other type of biometric data such as fingerprints, iris images, or facial photographs. Together with the DHS Privacy Office, S&T completed a Privacy Impact Assessment that outlines Rapid DNA’s compliance with privacy laws and principles.

To learn more about Rapid DNA, contact cds@hq.dhs.gov 

Last Updated: 01/12/2023
Was this page helpful?
This page was not helpful because the content