Human Rights and a DNA Database
Barely 25 years have passed since the first DNA “fingerprint” was identified. This showed that all individuals, other than identical twins, have a unique DNA fingerprint. Today DNA analysis is a central part of many criminal investigations. Consequently more and more people are having DNA samples taken by the police. In many instances these samples are likely to end up on the UK’s National DNA Database.
Who Runs the DNA Database?The DNA Database is administered by the National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA), an organisation run by the police to support their main activities. The NPIA came into being in 2007 and took over various functions previously carried out by a number of other organisations, including the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Home Office. The National DNA Database Strategy Board oversees the running of the Database. Amongst those who sit on the Strategy Board are members of the Human Genetics Commission.
Whose Information Is Kept on the DNA Database?The police may take a DNA sample from anyone who is arrested for a “recordable” offence. Recordable offences include all offences which could result in a prison sentence and many other (minor) crimes which may include those relating to public order and drunkenness. Samples are generally taken by a swab of the cells inside an individual’s cheek.
Individuals who respond to a police request to voluntarily supply a sample of their DNA, so that they can be eliminated from a police enquiry, should not have their results stored on the DNA Database unless they ask for them to be retained. Since March 2009 the DNA of children under the age of 10 may no longer be stored on the Database and any existing samples from such children should be removed.
Under new rules the information of most people who are not convicted of a crime will only be kept on the DNA Database of England, Wales and Northern Ireland for 6 years. This change was brought in after the European Court of Human Rights declared it unlawful to retain the DNA of innocent people indefinitely. In Scotland it had already been the practice to delete the entries for people who were not subsequently convicted of a crime.
Facts and Figures of the UK’s DNA DatabaseThe UK’s DNA Database was officially started in 1995 and was the first national DNA database in the world. The UK’s Database is said to be the largest of any country and by the end of 2009 it held the DNA information of about 5 million people. The NPIA claims that the Database has led to 300,000 crimes being detected since 1998. For the year 2008-2009 the NPIA say that the Database contributed to 70 homicides and 168 rapes being detected.
The type of DNA fingerprinting used for the Database means the likelihood of two people producing the same result is 1 in 1 billion. The NPIA say that no two people whose information is currently on the Database have the same DNA profile. However, because there is a small chance that the test used by the Database could produce the same result for more than one person, there is a general rule that an individual being tried for a crime should not be convicted on DNA evidence alone.
Human Rights Considerations - For and Against a DNA DatabaseOne of the major concerns people have voiced about the DNA database is its potential conflict with the presumption of innocence. As an individual does not even have to have been charged to have their DNA sample taken (let alone convicted of an offence) entirely innocent people could end up having their information stored on the Database. There have even been allegations that in some areas the police have been carrying out arrests simply so that they can take a DNA sample from those involved. Additional concerns include those that the Database is inherently discriminatory. For example, because black men are statistically more likely to be arrested than other members of society they represent a disproportionately high number of those who have their DNA profile stored on the Database.
Advances in DNA technology have resulted in samples taken long before DNA fingerprinting was possible being used to identify the perpetrators of crimes. The overriding argument in favour of the Database is that it can help bring to justice individuals who might otherwise have got away with their crimes – sometimes decades after the crime took place. Therefore, as is often the case when the question of an individual’s human rights is raised, the interests of society as a whole may have to be balanced against the rights and freedoms of the individual.