September 18, 2007 | Michael Holloway

Towards proper regulation of the DNA database

Today, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics launched their report on the regulation of the National DNA Database. The authors emphasised balancing ethical values, such as liberty, autonomy and privacy, against the database's benefits to law-enforcement. The headlines echo our own submission to the review:

  • Only people convicted of a crime should be permanently recorded, except those charged with serious violent or sexual offences.
  • Police should not be given powers to sample and store DNA, without consent, from people arrested for 'non-recordable' offences.
  • Those who volunteer their DNA (e.g. witnesses) should be able to request - without providing a reason - the removal of their DNA.
  • Unless there is a good reason to preserve it, children's DNA should be removed from the NDNAD on request.
  • Lawyers and juries should be given more help to understand the meaning of DNA evidence.
  • Familial searching should not be practiced unless it is necessary and proportionate.
  • Ethnic inferences should not be part of routine procedure.
  • The NDNAD should have an independent ethics and governance framework.
  • The regulation of all forensic databases, including oversight of research and other access requests, should be given statutory basis.

Concerns were expressed at this morning's launch event that Nuffield's recommendations do not go far enough. Terri Dowty (ARCH) argued that children must be given the right to exclude their own DNA from the register, rather than depending on their - not always reliable - guardians and the courts to aid in the removal of their genetic make-up. Helen Wallace (Genewatch) argued, in line with the Human Genetics Commission, against costly preservation of samples once the necessary profiles are extracted.

Despite these concerns, implementing these recommendations would significantly improve the current position. The Home Office is currently evaluating the aged statutory foundation of this database (the PACE Review) and is due to pronounce on the issue in December 2007.

Comments (3)

  1. Rufus Evison:
    Oct 07, 2007 at 06:38 PM

    Why does no one talk about the fact that an expanded database cannot work because of mathematical problems?

    The way you match dna is using a "dna fingerprint" not using the entire sequence. With this method you have a chance of having the same dna fingerprint as someone else. The government put this chance at one in a billion. An independant audit put it at around one in a hundred.

    If we assume the government estimate is right and then look at the mathematics there is still a real problem. If it is one hundred to one then there is a worse problem.

    One in a billion is alright if you are doing a one to one match. If you have a large database then you are looking at large numbers of possible matches. With one in a billion probabilities on a database the size they are proposing the mathematics (combinatorics) says there will be thousands of duplicates. This means the odds are that there will be several innocent people (hundreds or thousands rather than tens) appearing to be matches to crime scene dna.

    This is without even taking into consideration the fact that DNA is persistent and portable. Mathematically a database is indefensible unless we are prepared to send innocent people to prison.

    I will be doing a series of articles on this subject on my blog over the next few months. I will include some of the reasoning behind the maths.

  2. Justin Pursell:
    Aug 25, 2008 at 01:38 AM

    I believe I was data harvested for no other reason than to give a new police recruit experience in making an arrest!

    I called an ambulance to my home because my partner had fallen backwards and banged her head. She was not coherent at the time so the police were called. She was taken to hospital and I was arrested. After being fingerprinted and having my DNA taken, I was then asked what had happened, I kept trying to tell them all the way through the episode but they were not interested until I had been processed. after giving an account of what had actually happened I was released without charge because there was no evidence of an assault. That's because there never had be an assault!

    Now they have my DNA and fingerprints for no good reason, I feel like I have been violated - just to give a young recruit some experience, I not sure if I should make a complaint to somebody - I was put in a police van and handcuffed with my hands through the seat belt (if there had been an accident my life would have been at risk). I was then put in a police cell for two hours and after somebody finally wanted to listen to me, was released without charge! Not only was this a waste of police time and money but now I am worried where my data mite end up! - Justin Pursell

  3. Dunxd:
    Sep 23, 2007 at 10:52 PM

    Why keep the DNA of people only charged with serious sexual or violent crimes? Why are people found innocent of those crimes less innocent than those incorrectly accused of other crimes?