Dr Helen Wallace, director of Genewatch UK
Have you or your child been arrested and had your DNA and fingerprints taken by the police? Are you concerned about how the Government might misuse this information, or fail to keep it safe? If you have answered yes to these questions then the way the DNA database is used will effect you.
Shocking racial bias of DNA database
‘One of the most shocking aspects of the DNA database is its racial bias. About 4 out of every 10 black men have a record on the database, compared to about 1 in 10 white men.
For young black men, the bias is even worse: about 3 out of 4 young black men, aged between 15 and 34, have records on the DNA database. Vulnerable people, including children and people with mental illness, also often end up with records on the database as a result of being arrested by the police.
Last year, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the blanket retention of innocent people's DNA and fingerprints by the UK Government is illegal.
In response, the Government has recently announced a consultation about whose records should be kept and for how long.
This article explains what the consultation is about and why it's important to respond to it.'
About the DNA database
Since 2004, the police have taken DNA and fingerprints routinely from anyone arrested for any recordable offence - this includes nearly all offences except dropping litter and parking fines. Officially, all this information is now kept until age 100, even if you are not charged or convicted.
As a result, the Government has built a vast DNA database of about 5 million people's records. At least 800,000 innocent people who have been arrested in England, Wales or Northern Ireland are thought to have their DNA, fingerprints and computer records retained.
Many more people with records on these databases have been cautioned or convicted for minor offences.
About a million people on the database were arrested as children - aged ten to 18. Many of these children are innocent or have been given reprimands or final warnings, rather than being convicted by a court.
If you are arrested, part of your DNA is analysed by a laboratory to produce a string of numbers known as a DNA profile. Your DNA profile is stored on the National DNA database and can be used to trace you or your relatives.
A sample of your DNA, containing your personal genetic information, including some private information about your health, will also be stored by one of the commercial laboratories that do work for the police.
Your record on the National DNA Database is linked to your record of arrest on the Police National Computer, which is now also stored until age 100.
Every night innocent DNA is compared with all DNA found at crime scenes
This Police National Computer record can be used to refuse you a visa or a job. Every night your DNA profile is compared with all the crime scene DNA profiles stored on the computer database. DNA evidence is not foolproof: false matches can occur with crime scene DNA profiles and DNA evidence can be planted.
Making the DNA database so large has not helped to solve more crimes - the database has more than doubled in size over the last 5 years but the number of crimes detected using DNA has not increased.
In Scotland, most innocent people have their DNA and fingerprint records deleted as soon as they are acquitted or have charges dropped, but a small number of people accused of serious violent or sexual offences can have their records kept temporarily. Scotland's DNA database is at least as effective at solving crimes as the DNA database in England.
The Government consultation
As a result of the European Court of Human Right's decision that what it is doing is illegal, the Government has now announced a consultation about whose DNA and fingerprint records should be kept and for how long.
The proposals in the consultation have been widely criticised for allowing the Government to keep the DNA profiles and fingerprints of innocent people for six to twelve years after they were arrested.
People who are rearrested and found innocent again will have to wait another six to twelve years before their database records are deleted.
The Home Office has also proposed that all adults convicted or cautioned for a recordable offence will continue to have their DNA profiles and fingerprints retained indefinitely (normally until age 100).
Children and young people who are convicted, or given a reprimand or final warning, for a single lesser offence will have their DNA profile removed when they turn 18, provided they are not re-arrested. But if they are arrested more than once, or for a more serious offence, they will be treated the same as adults.
Ill concieved idea that re-arrest is equivalent to re-offending
People with past convictions who were not given a prison sentence could also be required to give a DNA sample to the police at any time, if this was not previously taken during the investigation.
The Home Office argues that it needs to keep all this information because people who have been arrested may go on the commit a future crime.
However, the calculations on which the Home Office bases its proposals are flawed because they assume that re-arrest is equivalent to re-offending, even for people who have never committed an offence. People convicted or cautioned for minor offences, such as begging or protest-related offences, are also assumed to be at risk of committing more serious future crimes. This includes children, who can be arrested from age ten for offences such as breaking a fence or a window with a football or a snowball.
The Home Office has also proposed that all DNA samples will be destroyed once the computerised DNA profiles have been obtained and checked. This is a welcome and important safeguard to prevent misuse. The samples contain sensitive genetic information, but keeping them is not necessary for identification purposes.
How to respond to the consultation
You can read the consultation on the Home Office website by clicking here, the deadline for responses is 7th August 2009.
You can email your response to:
You should respond to the proposals in your own words, with your own opinion. If your DNA has been taken by the police you might want to say what you feel about that.
Here are some other ideas for points you might want to make:
- The racial bias in the database amounts to criminalising a generation of young black men.
- Vulnerable people, including children and people with mental illness, can be seriously affected by having their DNA collected and retained.
- Just because someone is arrested does not mean they are a criminal (even if they are arrested more than once).
- Innocent people should not have their records kept on the DNA database, except perhaps temporarily in a small number of special cases (like in Scotland).
- If an offence is minor, people should not have their records kept for life, especially if they are children.
- The proposal to destroy the DNA samples stored by the laboratories is welcome - these contain sensitive genetic information which could be misused.
You can find more information about the DNA database and how to reclaim your DNA by visiting Reclaim Your DNA org.
About the author:
Dr Helen Wallace is director of GeneWatch UK
Helen specialises in the ethics, risks and social implications of human genetics. She has a degree in physics from Bristol University and a PhD in applied mathematics from Exeter University. Helen has worked as an environmental scientist in academia and industry and as Senior Scientist at Greenpeace UK, where she was responsible for science and policy work on a range of issues
An expert on the National DNA Database (NDNAD), Helen and her team have advised the Government and monitored the developments of the NDNAD since its introduction in 1999. Helen has also advised the Scottish Parliament on their NDNAD (they have subsequently implemented Gene Watch's recommendations) and she has been involved in consultations with American officials regarding the efficacy of the US plans for a NDNAD.