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Forensics reaches into the future

How far should we let the DNA database go?

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Earlier this year at an event jointly run by the Home Office and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) we saw a project led by Cranfield University to replace the time-honoured tradition of experts making highly educated time of death guesstimates. An arsenal of analytical techniques is being developed to turn the art into a science.

Project leader Dr Peter Zioupos said: "The future of age-at-death determination lies with analytical techniques rather than expert-based assessments. Our technique could help to identify victims of accidents, natural disasters and suicide, as well as murder. We aim to offer it as a forensic service within the next 12 months."

Perhaps we'll see CSI's impossibly well-groomed investigators replaced by banks of whirring mass spectrometers. Or not.

Frakenstein's monster?

While everyone else seems permanently impressed with DNA forensics, the man who pioneered DNA fingerprinting has repeatedly voiced fears over the mission creep that has characterised the NDNAD's first decade. A series of law changes has seen the Home Office's power to take and retain profiles have fewer and fewer limits.

In autumn, Alec Jeffreys told the BBC:" When the DNA database was initially established it was to database DNA from criminals such that if they reoffended they could be picked up. Hundreds of thousands of entirely innocent people now populate that database. My view is that that's discriminatory, that those people will be very skewed socioeconomically and ethnically so there's clear discrimination there."

Thirty-seven per cent of all black men in the UK are on the database, compared to 10 per cent on white men.

The government revealed the full extent of the NDNAD's innnocents roster only recently, bumping it up to 1,139,445 in response to a parliamentary question. The new figure is eight times a total given earlier in the year.

Such civil libertarian collywobbles do not wash with the Prime Minister, who on a visit to the FSS said there should be "no limits" to the size of the NDNAD, and has volutarily submitted his own genetic profile.

There are murmurs of government complacency on the issues from within the forensic community; it is left to NGOs like Genewatch UK (which has an essential backgrounder here) and the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, which is consulting on the NDNAD and expects to report next autumn, to examine the controversy.

In his comments, Jeffreys also singled out for criticism the lack of parliamentary debate over familial searches, which hugely extend the database's reach.

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Next page: The final frontier

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