Rui Vieira/AP
Sir Alec Jeffreys

DNA Pioneer Calls for Britain to Remove Genetic Profiles of Innocent People From Its Database

September 14, 2009 06:00 PM
by Denis Cummings
Alec Jeffreys, a pioneer in genetic profiling, last week repeated his opposition to the policy of keeping DNA samples of innocent people in the British DNA database. Britain has been slow to respond to a European court ruling that found the database violated the human right to privacy.

Jeffreys Critical of 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 more than 5 million people, about 850,000 of whom were not found guilty of any crime. Only Scotland destroys DNA profiles after acquittal.

Speaking to the BBC on Thursday, the 25th anniversary of his discovery, Jeffreys said, “This does raise very serious issues of discrimination—breach of genetic privacy, stigmatization—a whole host of issues. “My view is very simple … innocent people do not belong on the database. Branding them as future criminals is not a proportionate response in the fight against crime.”

Jeffreys is far from alone in his condemnation of keeping innocent profiles in the database. In December, the European Court of Human Rights 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.”

The British Home Office has been reluctant to change its policy, announcing it will keep innocent profiles in the database for six to 12 years. Over the summer, it issued a letter to police officials saying that it was “vitally important” not to remove any DNA records on the basis of the court decision.

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 in April 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.” 

Conservative MP Damian Green, who was arrested last November for leaking government information to the public, recently had his DNA profile removed from the government database after no charges were brought against him. Writing in The Guardian, Green says that all citizens must be given the same to right have their profile removed if they are found innocent. “One down, 800,000 to go,” he said.

Simon Foy, head of the Metropolitan Police's Homicide and Serious Crime Command, argues 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


Most Recent Beyond The Headlines