Spread Of DNA Databases Sparks Ethical Concerns


“A lot of British people were very shocked to find themselves or their children ending up on the database for minor alleged offenses such as throwing a snowball at a car,” said Helen Wallace, director of the privacy group GeneWatch, which campaigns for restrictions on collection of DNA and other personal information.

After a long legal battle – waged in part by a youth who was arrested at 11 on suspicion of attempted robbery and had his DNA retained despite being acquitted – the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2008 that Britain’s “blanket and indiscriminate” storage of DNA violated the right to a private life.

The U.K. was forced to trim its huge database. Under a law passed last year known as the Protection of Freedoms Act, the government is destroying the DNA profiles – strings of numbers derived from DNA samples that are used to identify individuals – of a million people who were arrested for minor offenses but not convicted. People acquitted of serious crimes have their DNA profiles kept for up to five years.

Britain also has incinerated more than 6 million physical DNA samples – mostly swabs of saliva – taken from suspects. Samples, which could previously be kept indefinitely, must now be destroyed after six months.

Destroying the samples is seen as key to limiting DNA databases to crime-fighting rather than snooping, because it means stored DNA cannot be used to trace relatives or susceptibility to disease.

The U.K. government says the curbs have restored a sense of proportion to Britain’s database, but some aspects of the country’s genetic monitoring remain murky.

The U.K. DNA ethics watchdog has expressed concerns about a secret counterterrorism database, which, according to the Metropolitan Police Authority, contains “DNA obtained through searches, crime scenes and arrests in relation to counterterrorism” – including samples from people stopped and questioned at ports and borders, even if they are not arrested.

The Home Office, which oversees police and the DNA database, said there was a “robust regulatory framework” for the counterterrorism database. But it would not disclose how large it is, who has access to it or whether the information is shared with other countries.

Some authorities on DNA say fears of genetic intrusion are misplaced.

Chris Asplen, a former assistant U.S. attorney who now heads the Global Alliance for Rapid DNA Testing, argues that DNA is not dramatically different from other information the authorities already hold about millions of people, such as fingerprints, social security numbers or automobile registrations.

But he does see avenues for abuse.

“There is an argument to be made that because that biological sample exists, the government could go back and do other things with it that are not authorized by the law,” he said. “It’s a constant tension between government and people, particularly when technology is applied.”

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Posted by on Aug 1st, 2013 and filed under Techline. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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