National DNA Database: Protecting against crimes vs. protecting our privacy

Programs such as ‘CSI’ and ‘Law and Order’ are becoming more realistic than science fiction as our knowledge and technology improves. The National DNA Database® (NDNAD) was set up in the UK in 1995, following amendments to the Police & Criminal Evidence Act 1984 by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. This allowed buccal (mouth) scrapes, criminal justice samples, or rooted hairs, to be obtained for DNA analysis in broadly the same circumstances as fingerprints. The information derived from these can be searched against records held by or on behalf of the police.

DNA samples can be taken by the police from anyone arrested and detained in police custody in connection with a recordable offence. These are offences that have to be recorded on the Police National Computer to form part of a person’s criminal record, and include most offences other than traffic offences. Samples can be taken with or without the person’s consent.

At the end of December 2005, the NDNAD held around 3.45 million Criminal Justice and elimination profiles and 263,923 crime scene sample profiles.

The database is not only set up to catch the perpetrator themselves but can identify potential relatives of the person who left a crime scene sample, when that person is not on the Database. This information as well as further information is published online by the UK's Forensic Science Service.

Genewatch has raised several concerns over this new innovation which includes:

  • retaining people's records permanently on the NDNAD regardless of the nature of their offence, including people permanently on the NDNAD who have been arrested but not charged, or who have been acquitted;
  • retaining DNA samples, rather than just the DNA profiles and personal data;
  • using the database for genetic research without consent;
  • the potential expansion of 'familial searching' (looking for the relatives of a suspect) to a broader range of offences;
  • the potential expansion of the NDNAD to include other genetic information (for example SNPs) which may be health-related;
  • attempts to use genetic information to try to predict race, health status or behaviour;
  • increasing expansion of the NDNAD, perhaps to the whole population;
  • increasing 'back door' forensic use of DNA databases established for health or research purposes; and
  • the possibility that multiple Government databases will be linked via the proposed National Identity Register.

What is a reasonable balance between protecting the right to privacy and protecting citizens from crime?

What do you think?

Leanne Mercer, M.Sc, CGC, CCGC

lmercer's blog