Friday, May 08, 2009

Genewatch UK on DNA retention

The Home Office consultation on the retention of the DNA of innocents is now available at the Home Office website.

By chance I heard the Executive Director of Genewatch UK, Dr Helen Wallace, on the Richard Bacon show whilst coming home from a late night meeting last night. Dr Wallace proved to be a paragon of clarity on the complexities of the retention of DNA, the circumstances in which it should be retained and when it should not, and made a very clear and rational case against the systematic retention of innocent people's DNA and the uncontrolled expansion of the database.

Naturally being the BBC they had to have an advocate in favor of the retention of innocents' DNA and the expansion of the database. This was a victims' campaigner who I think Richard Bacon called Gill Saywood (or possibly 'Sayward' I didn't quite catch the appropriate articulation on the occasions the presenter referred to her by name. So apologies to Ms Saywood/ward if I've got that wrong).

The presenter opened with Dr Wallace, misrepresenting Genewatch's stance by saying they don't believe DNA samples should be retained at all and asking why not. Dr Wallace quickly put him right that they don't believe samples shouldn't be kept at all but they were against the massive expansion of the database and the retention of DNA of people who have not been convicted of any crime. Then Richard Bacon bounced back with the standard loaded question - why should we worry about DNA retention if we have nothing to hide... it's not going to affect your day to day life. Dr Wallace very calmly batted it back "Well if you're going to allow the government to keep this kind of data there is always going to be a danger of misuse..."

But rather than me outlining the discussion I'd suggest you go and listen to it if you have a spare 10 to 15 minutes in the next few days. (The discussion starts 1 hour and 41 minutes into the programme.) It's a pity the BBC doesn't produce transcripts of the discussions with really articulate guests on these shows to be made available in perpetuity. Dr Wallace's explanation of the issues, the meaning of the statistics and the general case against blanket retention (very formally made by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights) was one of the clearest and most accessible I have heard in the public debates on the subject. It's a shame that the contribution had to be made at midnight to a small audience and will be lost from the BBC iPlayer within a week.

Having failed to provoke an emotional reaction from Dr Wallace, Richard Bacon was more successful in his attempts to do so with Ms Saywood. Through leading questions he got her to appear to suggest DNA samples should be taken from the whole population and forcably taken from anyone and everyone who refused to cooperate. Having created this straw man he proceeded to take it apart. Ms Saywood generally was trying to make the case that criminals had too many rights and victims had none and that victims had the right not to live in fear. I can't help feeling it would have been much more useful if Richard Bacon had asked her to explain her reasons for holding those beliefs. She did, unfortunately, seem buy into the government's "this magic database will point the finger at criminals" rhetoric.

Genewatch is one of a number of organisations which have produced very enlightening reports on the value of UK's DNA database. The Genewatch report, Would 114 Murderers have walked away if innocent people's records were removed from the National DNA Database, from 2006, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics report, The forensic use of bioinformation: ethical issues, published in September 2007 and the report of the Human Genetics Commission in July 2008, A Citizens’ Inquiry into the Forensic Use of DNA and the National DNA Database, all systematically deconstructed and undermined ministers' repeated and superficially impressive claims about the use of the DNA database in crime detection.

Genewatch's reaction to the government's latest plans on retention in the face of the ECHR S and Marper case, is available at their website. But I hope they won't mind me reporducing it in full here.

GeneWatch PR: Home Office drags its feet on DNA database removals (7th May 2009)

GeneWatch UK today questioned the Home Office's proposed delay in deleting innocent people's DNA profiles from the police National DNA Database, following last year's decision by the European Court of Human Rights. The Government has announced a consultation on proposals to delete innocent people's computerised DNA records and fingerprints after 12 years if they have been accused of a serious violent or sexual offence, or six years for a lesser offence (1)

"This is a long time for innocent people to wait to have their records wiped", said Dr Helen Wallace, Director of GeneWatch UK. "DNA profiles can be used to track an individual or their relatives. Where are the weighty reasons that the European Court demanded to justify retention of this data?"

In Scotland, only people who have been prosecuted for serious violent or sexual offences can have their DNA profiles retained after acquittal. After three years, the police must apply to a court to retain such people's DNA profiles for a further two years, if this is deemed necessary, and the individual can appeal.

GeneWatch urged people who considered their DNA records to be held unfairly to continue to contact the police to seek removal from the database, and to have their say by responding to the consultation (2). The organisation also criticised continued misinformation about the supposed benefits of the database expansion (3).

"As long as the Home Office drags its feet on Database removals, people need to stand up for their rights", said Dr Wallace. "It is unacceptable to treat everyone who is arrested as if they are a rapist or a murderer".

However, GeneWatch welcomed Home Office plans to destroy the spare DNA samples which are usually taken by the police from arrested people using a mouth swab. One of the samples is analysed to produce the string of numbers known as a DNA profile that is stored on the computer database. But until now, a second spare sample has been stored indefinitely by the commercial laboratories that analyse DNA for the police. The samples are not needed for identification purposes and are already destroyed in some countries, such as Germany.

"DNA samples contain unlimited genetic information, including some sensitive personal information about people's health. We strongly welcome the proposal to destroy the samples to prevent misuse", said Dr Wallace.

In 2006, GeneWatch revealed that stored DNA samples had been used for genetic research without the consent of the individuals involved, including controversial research to try to predict ethnicity from DNA (4). There is a strong racial bias in the database, which is estimated to contain DNA profiles from more than a third of the black male population, rising to 3 out of 4 young black men (aged between 15 and 34).


Notes for Editors:

(1) The Home Office consultation 'Keeping the right people on the DNA database' was launched today by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith. In the S. and Marper case, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the UK Government was acting unlawfully by retaining the DNA profiles, samples and fingerprints of innocent people indefinitely. The judgment noted that: "Weighty reasons would have to be put forward by the Government before the Court could regard as justified such a difference in treatment of the applicants' private data compared to that of other unconvicted people".

(2) The website was launched on 27th April by GeneWatch UK, NO2ID and the Open Rights Group. It is also supported by Action on Rights for Children (ARCH), Black Mental Health UK, Liberty and Privacy International.

(3) The Home Office cites many examples where DNA has been useful in investigating crimes, but these examples are mostly misleading because they do not rely on retaining DNA profiles from innocent people. The number of crimes detected using DNA has not increased despite the database more than doubling in size. With more than 5 million records, Britain's DNA database is by far the largest in Europe, yet Britain has one of the lowest conviction rates for rape. The DNA database is not used or needed to exonerate innocent people, who carry their DNA with them at all times.

(4) More information is available on:"

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