United Kingdom's DNA Practices Criticized

By Matthew Harwood

Another non-profit organization has criticized the United Kingdom's practices regarding the collection and retention of DNA samples for police use.

In a report released earlier this week, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics said the amount of offences for which the police can take biological samples is too broad and criticized the police's power of retaining those samples as too "wide."

The report states that in a liberal democracy such as the United Kingdom protecting the public from criminal activities must be balanced with the preservation of fundamental liberties.

The values with which we are primarily concerned are liberty, autonomy, privacy, informed consent, and equality. These values are not absolute but there is a strong presumption in liberal democracies in favour of not restricting them.

The council is concerned many of the police's current practices regarding DNA samples don't strike this necessary balance.

Because police can take fingerprints and biological samples without consent from anyone arrested for a "recordable" offence—an offense that carries imprisonment along with 52 other, nonimprisonable offenses— the council recommends that police revise what is a recordable offense so that all minor, non-imprisonable offenses are excluded.

But proposals seem to be going the other way. In March, the Home Office said the police in the future may be take samples from anyone arrested, regardless of the crime, and without their consent. The report says this is disproportionate and contradicts liberal democratic norms. "Suspicion of involvement in a minor (at present "non-recordable") offence does not justify the taking of bioinformation from individuals without their consent."

But the biggest problem the council identified is not the taking of biological samples, but their retention.

Any samples taken by the police are retained indefinitely regardless of whether the arrested is charged or convicted. The report says that only those biological samples coming from someone convicted of a recordable offense should be retained indefinitely. All other samples should be destroyed and deleted from the National DNA Database (NDNAD), which stores the biological information taken by police.

Currently the United Kingdom holds biological samples of four million individuals or 6 percent of its population—the world's largest practicioner in retaining its citizens' genetic information.

The council is also worried about the overrepresentation of blacks and young people in the NDNAD, as was the human rights group Liberty was last week.

The council recommends that the NDNAD do an equality impact assessment to discover why blacks are overrepresented in the database before current practices further alienate minority communities.

The council is also concerned that retaining the biological information of minors may lead to stigmatization and may be in violation of Article 40 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Therefore, "there should be a presumption in favour of the removal of all records, fingerprints, and DNA profiles, and the destruction of all samples," says the report.

The council also disagreeds with those who advocate a population-wide DNA database to maximize forensic profiling and make arguments regarding discrimination moot, saying this would not bring more public safety while redefining the individual's relationship to the state from one of citizen to suspect.



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