The Dangers of DNA Databases

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys, the scientist behind the development of DNA testing methods used in modern policing, has attacked the government DNA database.

Speaking to the BBC, he said:

“My concern is that the way the database is now being populated by increasingly innocent people – and getting hard numbers on this is difficult. I’ve seen figures as high as 800,000 entirely innocent people on that database. My concerns, which were very much reflected in a recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, is that this is a real violation of an individual’s privacy.”

As referred to above, the very existence of the database is itself illegal, having been subject to a European High Court ruling that the profiles of those who have not been convicted of a crime must be removed from the database. Whilst the Home Office admits the continued growth of the database, it has been somewhat less than transparent about its plans to comply with this ruling. At present, it allegedly appears that rather than acting in the spirit of the ruling, the government may deliberately undermine it by deleting the data, but retaining the actual DNA samples themselves – thereby allowing it to recreate those profiles as and when it wishes.

The UK now has over 5 million individuals in its national DNA database. That’s a truly unprecedented gathering of biometric data, and clearly there are many cases of unsolved serious crimes that have been cleared up using DNA evidence. There have also been miscarriages of justice that have been brought to light by DNA. The data might be used for other benefits, such as medical research. There’s a legitimate case to argue that those convicted of violent, sexual or territorial crimes (eg burglary), should be in the database. But everyone, stopped for any reason at all, regardless of the outcome? That seems highly disproportionate.

As I’ve written before, it is my belief that the majority of records in the DNA database must be deleted immediately. As we become increasingly dependent upon DNA data for policing, there will be an erosion of the burden of proof required for the forensic acceptability of DNA data.

This will itself undermine the use of DNA in more serious crimes, and as Jeffreys says:

“Let’s suggest you have two samples that get swapped, and I stress that the likelihood is very low, but given the huge amount of case work one has to be mindful of the fact that there is not a zero probability, then you may get an error. You may have wrong profile and come up with wrong suspect.”

That last point is rather extreme, but far from the realms of possibility. More realistically, and immediately, my concern is that we simply hadn’t had a proper debate about the consequences of gathering so much DNA data together, and what that might mean for society? How are the security managers charged with protecting DNA data supposed to develop sensible risk controls if they don’t know what it’s worth? Is it appropriate to share that data, and if so what should the privacy controls be if the consequences of data losses or data leaks cannot be understood?

The law has also yet to determine who owns the data. As Jeffreys says:

“My genome is my property. It is not the state’s. I will allow the state access to that genome under very strict circumstances. It is an issue of my personal genetic privacy. I have met some [innocent] people who are on the database and are really distressed by the fact. They feel branded as criminals and I would feel branded as a criminal.”

Until these very complicated questions have been answered, it is essential that the government complies fully with the spirit of the European High Court ruling, and destroys not only the data but also the source DNA of all of those individuals not convicted of a crime. We then have to have a much more public debate about what the consequences might be of gathering this information. It is my hope that will lead to the destruction of all the source DNA data, and the removal of every record other than those for individuals convicted of crimes against the person.

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Good post, Toby. You are right to point out that deleting the DNA profiles but retaining the DNA samples would not fix the underlying violation of human rights. Unfortunately the Home Office does not appear to agree with Prof Jeffreys that his genome is his property and not that of the State... remember that proposal that your organs should default to the State post mortem unless you explicitly specify otherwise? That's not a very reassuring interpretation of the Social Contract - particularly if you think it is morally dodgy to treat people as a means to an end...
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