Monday, April 11, 2005

Jeffreys calls for world DNA database

Sir Alec Jeffreys, who discovered DNA fingerprinting, has called for the creation of a database which would contain the DNA details of everyone in the world.

"At a lecture on Saturday to mark the 20th anniversary of the discovery of DNA fingerprinting, Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys, of Leicester University, said a global DNA database would have been invaluable in attempting to identify victims of the recent tsunami. Instead, investigators faced endless searches through incomplete records, or having to cause further distress to relatives of the victims."

He suggests that access and use of such a database should be strictly controlled and has serious criticisms, for example, of the UK criminal DNA database. If the existing UK scheme, used for limited purposes (law enforcement) and miniscule by comparison with the proposed database, has so many problems, though, how could such a database possibly work in practice?

What problem are you trying to solve?
A: Identifying victims in case of disaster (and other unspecified noble objectives)

What does the system architecture look like?
A: Massive database + decentralised hi tech networked registration centres + remote networked handheld verification devices (or labs on a chip, as Professor Jeffrey's nicely describes them)

How well does it work?
A: Probably not very well

How many other problems can it cause?
Quite a few, similar to the national ID card scheme. Tens of thousands, if not millions of people have to have access to the system and some of them will have malign intentions. How can the database fail naturally (through errors in entries etc) and how can it be made to fail (eg deliberate falsification of records) leading to erroneous identification of victims. Function creep - once such a database exists, the temptation to use it for other things becomes irresistible. How do we know this? Because it already happens

How much does it cost?
Well the UK national Id card scheme is currently pegged at between £3 billion and £11 billion. A database a thousand times as big may cost a thousand times as much again, though economists would, no doubt berate me for making such a simplistic jump, not taking into account economies of scale on the positive side and the negative effects of collating international collaboration on a global scale.

Is is worth it?
Probably not.

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