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More Countries Want to Expand Who Is In DNA Databases

April 19, 2009 01:20 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
There is talk in the United States and Australia of expanding DNA databases, though Britain's large database has been criticized for keeping innocents' profiles.

Expanding Databases Around the World

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Ben McDevitt, who runs Australia's national DNA database, wants to expand the number of profiles in it by taking samples from people convicted of lesser crimes, and those who are "charged but not convicted," reported the Canberra Times.

''I personally believe that newcomers to crime need to be added to the national DNA database as soon as possible,'' McDevitt told the newspaper.

Australia, if it adopts McDevitt's wishes, wouldn't be alone. In the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation will this month start taking DNA samples from people detained for immigration reasons, or people waiting for trial, the New York Times reports.

"Law enforcement officials say that expanding the DNA databanks to include legally innocent people will help solve more violent crimes," the Times reported. Some states, such as California, already take a person's DNA sample once he or she is arrested.

The news comes just days after the pioneer of DNA called on Britain to purge innocent people's profiles from its national database, the largest in Europe.

Related topic: Jeffreys critical of Britain's DNA database

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. 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 told Reuters 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.”

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

Lynne Featherstone, a liberal democrat in England, wrote about the many reasons she thought people should be concerned about innocent people in a DNA database. One of those reasons was that the method the British use is a sensitive one that "can detect the DNA of people who have never even visited the scene of the crime themselves—let alone been in any way involved." Her DNA could turn up in many people's homes and offices because she is a politician who shakes many people's hands.

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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