United Kingdom National DNA Database - Privacy Concerns

Privacy Concerns

The UK DNA database is one of the world's largest, and has prompted concerns from some quarters as to its scope and usage. The database helps in solving crime and prosecuting runaway criminals years after the crime has been committed. Recordable offences include begging, being drunk and disorderly and taking part in an illegal demonstration. Many innocent people, including children from the age of ten are arrested but never charged, some for offences which later be proved to have been committed by another person. Changes in the powers of arrest granted to the police by the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 have led to expectations of even more samples being added.

A further concern has been raised over the 24,000 samples held of children and young people aged from 10 to 18 who have never been convicted, cautioned or charged with any offence. The use of the database for genetic research without consent has also been controversial, as has the storage of DNA samples and sensitive information by the commercial companies which analyse them for the police.

Given the privacy issues, but set against the usefulness of the database in identifying offenders, some have argued for a system whereby the encrypted data associated with a sample is held by a third, trusted, party and is only revealed if a crime scene sample is found to contain that DNA. Such an approach has been advocated by the inventor of genetic fingerprinting, Alec Jeffreys.

Others have argued that there should be time limits on how long DNA profiles can be retained on the Database, except for people convicted of serious violent or sexual offences. GeneWatch UK has launched a campaign calling on people to reclaim their DNA if they have not been charged or convicted of a serious offence, and has called for more safeguards to prevent misuse of the database. The Human Genetics Commission has argued that individuals' DNA samples should be destroyed after the DNA profiles used for identification purposes have been obtained.

The Liberal Democrats believe that innocent people's DNA should not be held on the database indefinitely. They have launched a national online petition arguing that whilst they believe "DNA is a vital tool in the fight against crime, there is no legitimate reason for the police to retain for life the DNA records of innocent people." They revealed figures in November 2007 showing that nearly 150,000 children under the age of 16 have their details on the database.

The Conservative Party objects to the database on the grounds that Parliament has not been given the opportunity to vote on it. Damian Green, former Tory home affairs spokesman, issued a press release in January 2006 stating: "We do have concerns about the Government including on the database the DNA and fingerprints of completely innocent people.... If the Government wants a database which has the details of everyone, not just criminals, they should be honest about it and not construct it by stealth." Mr Green now has his own DNA profile on the database having been arrested and subsequently released without charge on 27 November 2008.

A YouGov poll published on 4 December 2006, indicated that 48% of those interviewed disapproved of keeping DNA records of those who have not been charged with any crime, or who have been acquitted, with 37% in favour.

In early 2007, five civil servants were arrested on charges of industrial espionage for allegedly stealing DNA information from the database and using it to establish a rival firm.

In 2009 the Home Office was consulting on plans to extend the period of DNA retention to twelve years for serious crimes and six years for other crimes. According to the official figures, enough searches (around 2.5 trillion by 2009) have been run on the NDNAD such that statistically at least two matches (a 1 in a trillion chance, under ideal conditions) should have arisen by chance. However, depending on factors such as the number of incomplete profiles and the presence of related individuals, the chance matches may actually be higher. However the official position is that no chance matches have occurred, a position backed up by the fact that the majority of the searches will have been repeated, and that there are not 1 trillion unique DNA profiles on file.

In July 2009, a lawyer, Lorraine Elliot, was arrested on accusations of forgery which were quickly proven to be false. A DNA sample was taken from her and logged. She was cleared of the accusations a day later and exonerated. However, Mrs Elliot subsequently lost her job (even though she was completely innocent of any crime) when the fact that her DNA profile was stored on the national database was discovered during a subsequent work-related security check. In 2010 she was finally able to have her details removed from the database.

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