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Sir Alec Jeffreys

DNA Pioneer Wants Genetic Profiles of Innocent People Out of British Database

April 17, 2009 07:20 AM
by Denis Cummings
Alec Jeffreys, a pioneer in genetic profiling, has criticized the British government’s policy of keeping DNA samples of innocent people in its database.

Jeffreys Critical of DNA Database

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Sir Alec Jeffreys, professor of genetics at the University of Leicester, developed the technique of DNA fingerprinting in 1984. His breakthrough revolutionized forensic science and gave law enforcement the ability to definitively link suspects to crimes.

He has concerns, however, over the use of a DNA database as a crime-fighting tool. The U.K. established the National DNA Database in 1995, collecting DNA samples when a person was charged with a crime and destroying the profiles if the person was acquitted.

In 2001, England, Wales and Northern Ireland began retaining all profiles, and in 2003 the police began collecting samples after any arrest. The database now contains DNA profiles of between 4 and 5 million people, 50 times larger than the next largest national database in Europe. An estimated 850,000 people, including 40,000 children, were later acquitted of their crime.

“My genome is my property. It is not the state's. … It is an issue of my personal genetic privacy,” Jeffreys told The Guardian. “I have met some [innocent] people who are on the database and are really distressed by the fact. They feel branded as criminals,” adding that he would feel the same way.

He joins a growing list of critics who believe the government must destroy the profiles of those suspected of a crime, but later acquitted. Their view is supported by the European Court of Human Rights, which in December ruled in a 17-0 decision that the database was violating the human right to privacy.

The court, “was struck by the blanket and indiscriminate nature of the power of retention,” according to the ruling, adding that it “failed to strike a fair balance between the competing public and private interests.”

Government and law enforcement officials defended the retention as a necessity to solve crimes. Chris Sims of the Association of Chief Police Officers said that, over the 200,000 samples of innocent people collected between 2001 and 2005, “about 8,500 profiles of individuals have been linked with crime scene profiles involving nearly 14,000 offences.”

Despite the court ruling, England’s government has shown no inclination to change its policy. The opposition Conservative Party is proposing that all of the U.K. adopt the policy of Scotland, which removes the DNA profiles of suspects upon acquittal.

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Opinion & Analysis: Should the profiles of innocent people be removed from the DNA database?

Conservative MP Chris Grayling, the shadow home secretary, wrote in The Guardian that the retention of innocents’ DNA in the database “is an unacceptable extension of what is increasingly becoming a surveillance society.” He believes, “One of those principles is the right to be treated as innocent unless you are proved to be guilty. That right is inalienable.” He later added that that “must never change.” 

Liberal Democrat Shadow Home Secretary Chris Huhne echoes these sentiments, commenting, “It demonstrates how out of touch the Government is with public opinion when the inventor of genetic fingerprinting has to tell them how unfair the DNA database is.”

Simon Foy, head of the Metropolitan Police's Homicide and Serious Crime Command, argues in The Guardian that, though he too has privacy concerns, the “DNA database is an essential investigative tool.”

DNA evidence, “is one of the reasons murder conviction rates in the UK are significantly higher than those in the rest of the world,” he writes. “It helps ensure good detection, high conviction rates and a relatively low incidence of murder.”

But Conservative MP David Davis counters in The Independent that the crime-fighting benefits of the database are not as great as they are made out to be. “Since 2002-03 the number of profiles on the database has more than doubled,” he said, “but there has been no corresponding increase in the number of crimes detected using DNA.”

Background: Alec Jeffreys’ DNA fingerprinting discovery

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