Bioethics group raises DNA database concerns
'There has to be a limit to police powers'
Analysis The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has condemned the retention of "innocent" DNA on the National Database as unjustifed and unethical with "overtones of a police state".
The council - a group of clinicians, lawyers, philosophers, scientists, and theologians - was established in 1991 to examine ethical issues raised by new developments in science.
In its report, The Forensic Use of DNA and Fingerprints: Ethical Issues, the council recommends that police should only be allowed to permanently store bioinformation from people who are convicted of a crime.
Today, the police of England and Wales have wider sampling powers than the police force of any other country, and the UK has (proportionally, per head of population) the largest forensic database in the world.
When the police first began using DNA, consent was required before samples could be taken. A succession of Acts of Parliament and legislative amendments has increased police powers of sampling; the police can now take DNA samples from all persons arrested, without their consent, for recordable offences (an "arbitrary" classification), and retain the samples indefinitely regardless of whether the person arrested is subsequently convicted or even charged.
In response to comments from the Home Office that retaining the DNA of people who were innocent at the time of arrest had helped to solve crimes they committed years later, the Nuffield Council stuck to its guns. "There has to be a limit to police powers," said Dr Carole McCartney, one of the report's authors. "DNA shouldn't be retained simply on the basis that it might turn out to be useful."
She added that many of the statistics from the Home Office were "inconsistent, incomplete and confusing" and that much of its evidence consisted of anecdotal accounts of "horrible men caught with DNA".
The council recommended that the police should put more resources into the collection of DNA from crime scenes, noting that less than 20 per cent of crime scenes are forensically examined, but urged caution with regard to their analysis.
Professor Read outlined some of the information that could be mined from a data rich bio-sample found at the scene of a crime. Conceding that recent advances permitted forensic scientists to have a "pretty good stab at the eye colour", and quickly identify redheads, ethnic profiles generated by DNA analysis were still limited to providing a "very iffy statistical prediction" and there was a danger that such predictions encouraged the police to narrow the focus of their inquiries prematurely.
The council rejected calls for a population-wide database, which would "make all citizens suspects", on account of the lack of empirical evidence that this would substantially improve crime detection rates. It dismissed the "nothing to hide, nothing to fear" argument as "fallacious".
The finding of a match between a person and a crime scene does not indicate that the person was at the crime scene or that they committed the crime in question, but it might lead to them being subjected to a police investigation.
The report points out that "simply being the subject of a criminal investigation by the police can cause harm, distress, and stigma", and Sir Bob Hepple QC, chairman of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, cited a newspaper comment on the McCann case that the couple would find it "difficult to prove their innocence" as a result of widely reported forensic links.
The burden of proof
DNA evidence can't be completely trusted, possibly can't be trusted at all, but there seems to be little attempt to convince investigators or jurors about that.
DNA evidence can be fabricated. A criminal can collect another person's DNA and plant it at the scene of a crime. Worse still, a corrupt police officer could plant a suspect's DNA at the scene of a crime, and use it to "prove" that their suspect is the person they're looking for.
Even if the DNA is genuinely there, and even if the DNA can be presumed to have been left there by the person to whom it relates, it doesn't necessarily mean they're guilty of the crime. But the statement in court "DNA from Mr X was found at the scene" will almost certainly be assumed by jurors to mean that Mr X was guilty even if there's no other proof.
By far the biggest need is for acceptance that DNA is only a clue, not proof of anything. Thus DNA "evidence" should not be presentable in court, should only be used to reinforce other evidence that *already* exists and should never on its own be the reason for questioning a subject or searching the subject's premises.
The only acceptable use of DNA is to prove that the prime suspect probably did NOT do something ... if none of the person's DNA was found at the scene, then very likely that person is innocent.
Not a good idea
a few of the problems with having everyone's DNA on file:
1) Police will get lazy (not that they arent already) and immediately assume that if ur DNA is found at a crime scene, ur guity.
2) DNA Profiling - Think of Gattica where u cant even get a decent job without the 'right DNA'
3) i remember reading something about something like 1 in 26 people has the wrong father i.e. the man they thought was their father and who raised them is not their Biological father... a lot of women are gonna have some explaining to do...
4) Insurance companies - the fact that insurance is a legit scam in the first place is neither here nor there. Its only going to be a short step (and some well financed Lobbiests) for MP's to pass laws allowing the likes of insurance companies to look at the DNA database and for them to (NOT) offer insurance to only those who are not genetically more likely to get a particular diesease.
No such thing as removal from a database
Those who think that giving citizens the right to demand removal from a database actually results in removal are deluding themselves. Even if the data is physically deleted in sight of the person, what most people forget is that it is standard procedure for all public and company databases to be backed up and stored offsite. That's standard disaster recovery policy, anywhere; any public office or company that doesn't regularly make offsite backups of its data is begging for trouble, not to mention possible litigation in the event of loss of critical or financial data.
What this means is that even if your details are deleted from the main database, the tape backups locked away in government archives will of course still retain the information, and the admins are NOT going to modify a backup tape as this is a legal record of the state of the database at the time of the backup. So, while it DOES make it harder to retrieve your information once deleted, if an investigation draws a blank on the current database, you can bet they'll go to the archives.
Just as posting something on the internet means it stays there forever, so too does any record on any company or public database. Ever.