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Bioethics group raises DNA database concerns

'There has to be a limit to police powers'

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Concern was also expressed about new uses to which the database is now being put and the acute lack of ethical oversight. The original aim of the DNA database was to match crime scene samples to suspect samples. It is now being used for "increasingly speculative searches", including "ethnic inferences" and "genetic predisposition to crime".

Council members have been unable to discover the nature of all the research projects permitted by the DNA Database Custodian, and criticise the lack of transparency over the granting of third party requests for access to the database.

In light of the shifting applications of genetic information, the council recommends those who voluntarily provide the police with their DNA, including victims and witnesses, should be able to have it removed from the National DNA Database at any time without having to give a reason.

Currently, a volunteer's decision to consent at the time of sampling to their profiles being permanently loaded onto the database is irrevocable. This is in direct contrast to standard practice in medical research.

There is no framework in place for regulating international exchange of data between law enforcement agencies, compounding the council's concerns about potential misuses of the database.

The council recommends that the Government, as a matter of urgency, examine the implications of sharing the DNA material of UK citizens with foreign law enforcement agencies and private forensic science companies. Analysis and storage of biological samples is currently performed by three companies, and this number is set to rise.

GeneWatch alerted the public to the insecurity of the DNA database in 2006 when it obtained disclosure of confidential emails revealing that LGC, a company used by the police to analyse DNA samples, had been secretly keeping the genetic samples and personal details of hundreds of thousands of people.

The Nuffield Council recommends that the organisations and companies with custody of biological samples complete a standard Material Transfer Agreement, subject to ethical review, that establishes the terms and conditions under which samples may be accessed.

During the public consultation exercise, a number of people expressed grave concern about health-related information that might be obtained from the bio-samples. Unfortunately, the report fails to address this concern in any detail, and Professor Read said he found it "difficult to imagine what possible use the police could make of such information".

Not everyone is so sanguine. The British Medical Association recently outlined its concerns about the "militarisation of biology" in its report The Use of Drugs As Weapons: The Concerns and Responsibilities of Healthcare Professionals (pdf).

The report refers to the potential use of genetic material to satisfy the search for specificity by "less than lethal" weapon enthusiasts, and cites a paper by two Chinese authors in the 2005 Military Review in which they state: "If we acquire a target's genome and proteome information, including those of ethnic groups or individuals, we could design a vulnerating agent that attacks only key enemies without doing any harm to ordinary people". ®

Amber Marks is a lawyer, currently undertaking research into surveillance. Her book Headspace: On the Trail of Sniffer Dogs, Wasp Wardens, and Other Dumb Friends in the Surveillance Industry is due to be published by Virgin Books in March 2008.

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